In Singapore, we differentiate between libel and slander when discussing defamation.
Libel concerns written or published defamatory statements, including emails, blogs, print media, and even images and cartoons.
Slander involves spoken words.
Whilst Singapore recognises the right to free speech, there are certain exceptions to protect the reputation of people and businesses.
The introduction of the internet, social media, and other online platforms meant that traditional defamation laws had to be adapted to address new challenges. The definition of "publication", for example, had to be revised. The courts have recognised that "sharing" a post on social media can amount to publication. If the post contains false statements that could harm someone's reputation, and you share the post, even if you didn't create it, you can be liable for defamation.
In this article, we will discuss defamation and slander in Singapore and look at the legal framework that governs defamation and slander. We will also discuss what you need to prove to succeed with a defamation claim, look at available defences against a defamation claim, and the types of damages you could claim if successful.
When is a statement considered defamatory?
A statement is defamatory if it harms an individual's reputation or lowers their standing in the eyes of a reasonable person. It can take place in many ways, for example:
- In print.
- On social media.
- On broadcast media.
- In visuals, images.
- In verbal conversation or utterances.
When talking about defamation, we can speak about libel or slander.
Criminal and civil defamation
In Singapore, you can have a civil or criminal claim for defamation. Criminal claims are governed by section 499 of the Penal Code, and civil actions fall under the Defamation Act of 1957.
Civil law concerns the relationships and duties between individuals. Under the Defamation Act, a person can claim defamation even if the other person did not intend to defame the complainant. If the statement harmed someone's reputation or social standing, they could file a defamation claim.
A civil claim is available whether it was written (libel) or spoken(slander) defamation.
The elements of a successful civil defamation claim
To be successful in your defamation claim, you need to prove the following:
- The statement is defamatory, i.e. it harms your reputation or lowers your standing in the minds of society's reasonable or right-thinking members.
- You, the victim, must be identifiable.
Suppose you rely on a cartoon, for example, as a basis for your claim. In that case, you must be identifiable to succeed in your claim.
- The statement must be communicated to a third party or otherwise published.
- The statement is false.
Criminal action for defamation
In Singapore, you may institute criminal action against someone for defamation under the Penal Code.
Section 499 of the Penal Code states the following:
"Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person, intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said, except in the cases hereinafter excepted, to defame that person".
The elements of a Section 499 defamation claim are:
- The words must be spoken(slander) or written(libel).
- The words must be "published", i.e. other people must see or hear it.
- There must be an intention to harm the person's reputation.
- The person must be identified.
The Penal Code provides for some exceptions. You will not succeed with a defamation claim if the other party can prove, for example, that:
- The statement is true, and it is for the public good that it should be made or published. The court will decide on all the circumstances if it is for the public good.
- The statement is a good faith opinion based on facts regarding the public conduct of public servants.
- It is not defamation to publish a substantially accurate report of the proceedings of a court of justice, or of Parliament, or the result of any such proceedings.
- The same applies to good faith opinions regarding the merits of a case decided by a court or witness conduct.
- The statement is a good faith opinion on the merits of a public performance, such as publishing a book, making a speech in public or performing on stage, and the author or performer submitted the performance to the public's judgment.
Other defences against a defamation claim
Aside from the statutory exceptions in the Penal Code, there are other recognised defences against a defamation claim.
If you want to succeed with a justification defence, you must prove that the statement is true and based on facts.
A fair comment defence can succeed if you can prove that your comment is:
- An expression of your opinion, i.e., you didn't submit it as a statement of fact.
- Based on true facts.
- A matter of public interest.
- Fair, i.e., based on all the facts, it is your honest and unbiased opinion.
If you had malicious intent, you cannot rely on fair comment as a defence.
Qualified privilege exists only in a situation where the person who made the statement has an interest or legal, social, or moral duty to communicate the information. The third party receiving the information has a corresponding duty to receive the information. For example, answering police inquiries or communication between employers and employees.
Such information or statements are protected by privilege, even if the statement is defamatory.
Public apology for unintentional defamation
Although not strictly speaking a defence, a party who innocently made a statement and didn't intend any harm could avoid a lawsuit by offering a public apology.
Section 7 of the Defamation Act provides that:
"A person who has published words alleged to be defamatory of another person may, if he claims that the words were published by him innocently in relation to that other person, make an offer of amends."
If the offer is accepted and duly performed, there shall be no proceedings for libel or slander.
If the offer is not accepted, it could be a defence in any proceedings against the person claiming innocence that the words were uttered or published innocently, and that the party made an offer of amends as soon as practicable after being notified that the statement might be defamatory.
What damages can you claim for defamation?
Defamation laws in Singapore aim to protect an individual's reputation and provide compensation for damages caused by defamation. The court can award monetary damages, which may include general and aggravated damages.
Damages are awarded to grant some relief for the distress caused and to restore the person's damaged reputation.
General damages are assessed based on several factors, including the nature and seriousness of the statements, their impact on the victim's reputation, and the extent of the publication.
The wider the publication, the more damage is caused, and the greater damages can be awarded. The context and where the statement was published will also influence the amount of damages.
In some instances, the court will consider awarding aggravated damages. This usually depends on the conduct of the person who made the statement.
- Did the person apologise, offer to apologise, or refuse to apologise?
- Did the person repeat the statements?
- Did the person have malicious intent, or was the statement made recklessly?
In the case of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong v Leong Sze Hian  SGHC 66, the court awarded aggravated damages because a blogger shared a link to an article that made allegations of corruption against the prime minister. The court found that the blogger had complete reckless disregard for whether the allegations were true or not.
Other available remedies
Victims of defamation may seek injunctions. An injunction can be prohibitory (to stop future defamatory statements) or interlocutory (to retract existing statements).
If you find yourself in a situation where your reputation was harmed, or you are accused of libel or slander, you should seek legal advice immediately.
If you stand accused of defamation, an experienced lawyer can explain your options and help you determine whether you have a defence.
If you feel that your reputation was harmed, an experienced lawyer can assist in deciding whether you should proceed under the Defamation Act or the Penal Code, and what damages could be available to you. We can guide you through the steps to protect and restore your reputation and explore legal remedies.
To minimise the risk of further damage to your reputation, filing for an injunction might be the first step.
Defamation law can be complex and nuanced. Whether you stand accused, or are the victim, an experienced lawyer can make all the difference to the outcome of your case.