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CASE OF THE WEEK

 

TORT: Defamation - Libel - Press statements made by Inspector General of Police Malaysia and Attorney-General of Malaysia - Statements made linking HINDRAF organisation to terrorist groups, local gangsters and inciting racial hatred - Whether statements directed at respondent as legal adviser to HINDRAF - Whether HINDRAF a registered body - Whether action for defamation by respondent sustainable on public policy grounds - Application to strike out action - Dismissal of - Whether dismissal justified

CIVIL PROCEDURE: Striking out - Action in libel - Dismissal of application to strike out - Appeal against dismissal - Press statements alleged defamatory - Whether directed at respondent as legal adviser of HINDRAF organisation - Whether HINDRAF a legal body - Whether leaders and members had locus standi to institute civil proceedings - Whether respondent's action for and on behalf of HINDRAF sustainable on public policy grounds


TAN SRI MUSA DATO' HJ HASSAN & ORS v. UTHAYAKUMAR PONNUSAMY
COURT OF APPEAL, PUTRAJAYA
KN SEGARA JCA, HISHAMUDIN MOHD YUNUS JCA, ABDUL AZIZ RAHIM J
[CIVIL APPEAL NO: W-01(IM)-80-2009]
9 MARCH 2011

HEADNOTES

The respondent was an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya and a prominent human rights lawyer. He was the legal adviser of an organisation called HINDRAF, the abbreviation for "Hindu Rights Action Force". HINDRAF advocated the rights of marginalized Indians in Malaysia and campaigned against racial discrimination in Malaysia. On 25 November 2007, the respondent and HINDRAF organised a massive street rally in Kuala Lumpur to express discontent as to the treatment of Malaysian Indians by the third appellant herein, ie, the Government of Malaysia. On 13 December 2007, the respondent was detained under the Internal Security Act 1960. The 1st and 2nd appellants who were the Inspector General of Police Malaysia and the Attorney-General of Malaysia respectively, made press statements that were reported in The Star, The New Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia. In their press statements, they made references that linked HINDRAF to terrorist groups and local gangsters and allegations that the said organisation was out to incite racial hatred amongst Malaysians. The respondent as plaintiff then brought an action in libel against the appellants as defendants claiming that the press statements had defamed him and that he and HINDRAF at all times relied upon peaceful means to bring about change. The appellants applied to strike out the respondent's action under O. 18 r. 19 of the Rules of the High Court 1980 which was dismissed by the learned Judicial Commissioner. The appellants now appealed against the dismissal thereof.

Held (allowing the appeal with RM20,000 costs)

Per KN Segara JCA with Abdul Aziz Rahim J concurring (majority):

(1) The alleged defamatory statements did not identify the respondent or referred to the respondent. They were directed at the HINDRAF organisation. HINDRAF was not a registered society under the Societies Act 1966. HINDRAF was an illegal body. Its leaders and members had neither the locus standi nor the legal right to institute any civil proceedings in a court of law. The respondent's defamation action was, for all intents and purposes, an action for and on behalf of HINDRAF. The defamation action was clearly unsustainable and bound to fail on the grounds of public policy as the court would not entertain any action by an illegal society, its leaders or its prime mover. (paras 7-9)

Per Hishamudin Yunus JCA (dissenting):

(1) Considering that the respondent was an advocate and solicitor, the legal adviser to HINDRAF, a prime mover of the organisation and one of those detained under the Internal Security Act 1960, the press statements if read conjunctively and in their proper texts, not only referred to HINDRAF but also to the respondent and some other individuals as well. Each press statement could not be looked at in isolation. They were part of a series of press statements made one after another within a short duration of time on the same subject matter, ie on HINDRAF and its leaders and on their activities and on the respondent who was one of the leaders of HINDRAF. Hence, there was substance in the respondent's claim that the appellants' press statements not only referred to HINDRAF but also referred to the respondent. The respondent should be given an opportunity to have his day in court and his claim ought not to be summarily dismissed without a trial (Nevill v Fine Arts Co and Smith v. Walker, foll; Knupffer v. London Express Newspaper Ltd (HL), dist). (paras 38, 52 & 55)

(2) The supporting affidavit of the appellants' striking out application denying that the press statements referred to the respondent was deposed by a Senior Federal Counsel. The persons who ought to make the denial should have been the 1st and 2nd appellants themselves. The principle that a solicitor could not affirm a contentious affidavit and it must be the litigant himself who must affirm it, applied to the Senior Federal Counsel as well who had assumed a role similar to that of a solicitor for the appellants. (para 57)

(3) For the defence of qualified privilege to succeed, the appellants had to allude to facts to show that they were under a moral, social or legal duty to communicate the defamatory matter to the recipient. There was also the requirement that the recipient must be under a duty or had an interest in receiving the publication. It was not clear either from the statement of defence, the affidavit of the Senior Federal Counsel or the appellants' written submission in what manner the defamatory press statements were made on occasions of qualified privilege. Further, there were no affidavits deposed by the appellants themselves to explain how their press statements were protected by qualified privilege. As rightly observed by the learned Judicial Commissioner, the Senior Federal Counsel was in no position to depose any affidavit on their behalf to show the existence of circumstances justifying the defence of qualified privilege. (paras 59 & 60)

(4) There was no authority or principle of law that a defamatory statement to the press by a government officer was protected by qualified privilege. A government officer should not be at liberty to make defamatory press statements vilifying a person and successfully invoking the defence of qualified privilege when sued by that person for defamation. At the very least, whether the facts did justify the defence of qualified privilege should only be determined after a full trial. (para 61)

Bahasa Malaysia Translation Of Headnotes

Responden merupakan seorang peguambela dan peguamcara Mahkamah Tinggi Malaya dan pembela hak-hak asasi manusia yang terkenal. Beliau merupakan penasihat undang-undang sebuah pertubuhan bernama HINDRAF iaitu nama pendek untuk "Hindu Rights Action Force". HINDRAF berjuang untuk hak-hak asasi orang India yang diketepikan di Malaysia dan berkempen terhadap diskriminasi perkauman di Malaysia. Pada 25 November 2007, responden dan HINDRAF mengaturkan satu perhimpunan jalanan yang besar di Kuala Lumpur untuk meluahkan rasa ketidakpuasan mereka terhadap rawatan Kerajaan Malaysia iaitu perayu ketiga di sini, terhadap orang-orang India di Malaysia. Pada 13 Disember 2007, responden ditahan di bawah Akta Keselamatan Dalam Negeri 1960. Perayu pertama dan perayu kedua iaitu Inspektor Jeneral Malaysia dan Peguam Negara Malaysia masing-masing, telah membuat kenyataan-kenyataan akhbar yang disiarkan di The Star, The New Straits Times dan Utusan Malaysia. Dalam kenyataan-kenyataan tersebut, mereka membuat rujukan mengaitkan HINDRAF dengan kumpulan-kumpulan pengganas dan samseng tempatan dan dakwaan-dakwaan bahawa pertubuhan tersebut bertujuan membangkitkan rasa kebencian perkauman. Responden sebagai plaintif kemudiannya membawa tindakan libel terhadap perayu-perayu sebagai defendan-defendan dengan mendakwa bahawa kenyataan-kenyataan akhbar tersebut telah memfitnahkannya dan bahawa dia dan HINDRAF selalunya bergantung kepada cara yang aman untuk membawa perubahan. Perayu-perayu memohon untuk membatalkan tindakan responden di bawah A. 18 k. 19 Kaedah-Kaedah Mahkamah Tinggi 1980 yang telah ditolak oleh Pesuruhjaya Kehakiman. Perayu-perayu kini merayu terhadap penolakan tersebut.

Diputuskan (membenarkan rayuan dengan kos RM20,000)

Oleh KN Segara HMR dengan Abdul Aziz Rahim H mempersetujui (majoriti):

(1) Kenyataan-kenyataan fitnah yang didakwa tidak mengenalpasti responden atau merujuk kepadanya. Mereka ditujukan kepada pertubuhan HINDRAF. HINDRAF bukan pertubuhan yang didaftarkan di bawah Akta Pertubuhan 1966. HINDRAF adalah satu badan yang tidak sah. Ketua-ketua dan ahli-ahlinya tiada locus standi atau hak undang-undang untuk memulakan sebarang tindakan sivil dalam mahkamah undang-undang. Tindakan fitnah responden sebenarnya bagi pihak HINDRAF. Tindakan fitnah ini jelasnya tidak boleh dipertahankan dan pasti gagal atas dasar kepentingan awam disebabkan mahkamah tidak akan melayan mana-mana tindakan pertubuhan yang tidak sah mahupun ketua-ketuanya atau pengusul utamanya.

Oleh Hishamudin Yunus HMR (menentang):

(1) Memandangkan responden adalah seorang peguambela dan peguamcara, penasihat undang-undang HINDRAF, pengusul utama pertubuhan tersebut dan salah seorang yang ditahan di bawah Akta Keselamatan Dalam Negeri 1960, kenyataan-kenyataan akhbar tersebut jika dibaca bersekali dan dalam konteks yang sebenar, tidak sahaja merujuk kepada HINDRAF tetapi juga kepada responden dan individu-individu yang lain. Setiap kenyataan akhbar tersebut tidak boleh dibaca secara berasingan. Mereka adalah sebahagian daripada kenyataan-kenyataan yang berturut-turut dibuat dalam jangka masa pendek atas perkara sama, iaitu HINDRAF dan ketua-ketua dan aktiviti-aktivitinya dan responden yang merupakan salah satu ketuanya. Maka terdapat merit dalam dakwaan responden bahawa kenyataan-kenyataan perayu-perayu itu tidak sahaja merujuk kepada HINDRAF tetapi juga kepada responden. Responden mestilah diberi peluang untuk membuktikan tuntutannya di mahkamah dan tuntutannya itu tidak patut ditolak secara terus tanpa bicara (Nevill v. Fine Arts dan Smith v. Walker, diikuti; Knupffer v. London Express Newspaper Ltd (HL), dibezakan).

(2) Afidavit sokongan dalam permohonan pembatalan perayu-perayu yang menafikan bahawa kenyataan-kenyataan akhbar merujuk kepada responden telah dideposkan oleh seorang Peguam Kanan Persekutuan. Orang-orang yang patut menafikannya adalah perayu-perayu pertama dan kedua sendiri. Prinsip bahawa seorang peguamcara tidak boleh mengesahkan afidavit bertikaian dan ia semestinya litigan sendiri yang mengesahkannya terpakai juga kepada Peguam Kanan Persekutuan yang telah mengambil peranan seperti peguamcara perayu-perayu.

(3) Bagi pembelaan perlindungan bersyarat untuk berjaya, perayu-perayu mesti merujuk kepada fakta-fakta bagi menunjukkan bahawa mereka berada di bawah kewajipan moral, sosial atau undang-undang untuk menyatakan perkara fitnah itu kepada penerimanya. Ia juga adalah satu keperluan bahawa penerimanya berkewajipan atau mempunyai kepentingan untuk menerima penyiaran itu. Ianya tidak jelas daripada pembelaan pernyataan afidavit Peguam Kanan Persekutuan atau penghujahan bertulis perayu-perayu tentang bagaimanakah kenyataan-kenyataan akhbar fitnah itu dikatakan dibuat di bawah alasan perlindungan bersyarat. Lagipun, tiada afidavit dideposkan oleh perayu-perayu sendiri untuk menjelaskan dalam cara manakah kenyataan-kenyataan akhbar mereka itu dilindungi oleh pembelaan perlindungan bersyarat. Seperti yang diperhatikan oleh Pesuruhjaya Kehakiman, Peguam Kanan Persekutuan tidak boleh mendeposkan sebarang afidavit bagi pihak mereka untuk menunjukkan wujudnya keadaan-keadaan yang menjustifikasikan pembelaan perlindungan bersyarat.

(4) Tiada autoriti atau prinsip undang-undang yang menetapkan bahawa kenyataan fitnah kepada media oleh seorang pegawai kerajaan dilindungi oleh pembelaan perlindungan bersyarat. Seorang pegawai kerajaan tidak mempunyai kebebasan untuk membuat kenyataan-kenyataan akhbar fitnah menghinakan seseorang dan kemudiannya membangkitkan pembelaan perlindungan bersyarat apabila didakwa orang itu kerana fitnah. Pada tahapnya yang paling rendah, soal sama ada fakta-fakta memang menjustifikasikan pembelaan perlindungan bersyarat, haruslah ditentukan selepas suatu perbicaraan penuh.

Case(s) referred to:

Bandar Builder Sdn Bhd & Ors v. United Malayan Banking Corporation Bhd [1993] 4 CLJ 7 SC (refd)

Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim v. Dato' Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad [1999]
7 CLJ 32 HC (refd)

Kaplands Sdn Bhd v. Lee Chin Cheng Dengkil Oil Palm Plantations Sdn Bhd [2000] 4 CLJ 281 HC (refd)

Knupffer v. London Express Newspaper, Limited [1944] AC 116 (dist)

Million Group Credit Sdn Bhd v. Lee Shoo Khoon & Ors [1985] 1 CLJ 181; [1985] CLJ (Rep) 575 HC (refd)

Nevill v. Fine Arts Co [1897] 1 AC 68 (refd)

S Pakianathan v. Jenni Ibrahim & Another Case [1988] 1 CLJ 771; [1988] 1 CLJ (Rep) 233 SC (refd)

Seng Huat Hang Sdn Bhd v. Chee Seng & Co Sdn Bhd [1985] 2 CLJ 97; [1985] CLJ (Rep) 760 HC (refd)

Smith v. Walker [1912] SC 224 (foll)

Legislation referred to:

Rules of the High Court 1980, O. 18 r. 19(1)(a), (b), (d)

Counsel:

For the appellants - Suzana Atan (Normastura Ayub with him) SFCs

For the respondent - M Manoharan; M/s M Manoharan & Co

[Appeal from High Court, Kuala Lumpur; Civil Suit No: S6-21-5-2008]

Reported by Usha Thiagarajah

 
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