The comment was made honestly and the reports were written fairly, says the judge.
That's why Justice Warren Khoo yesterday ruled that The New Paper and two other publications could claim the defense of fair comment, in the defamation suits brought against them by the Central Christian Church (CCC). On this basis, he dismissed four out of the five suits brought by the church and its founder, Mr. John Philip Louis. This was even though he ruled that there was no justification in calling the CCC a cult.
Said Justice Khoo: "In a defense of justification, the court has to be satisfied that the libelous statement of fact or comment is true or correct. "In a defense of fair comment, the court does not have to agree with the truth or correctness of the comment. It only needs to answer the question: Given the latitude the law allows, is the comment something that a fair-minded person could honestly have made?"
Yes, decided the judge, in his written judgment.
In 1991, Impact, a bi-monthly Christian magazine, ran in its Oct/Nov issue an article alleging that two new cults had started in Singapore. The CCC was named as one of them (the other, the Army of God).
The article described the groups' activities and beliefs.
The article was picked up by The New Paper, which ran it with the addition of a few interviews on Nov. 23, 1991. Lianhe Wanbao reproduced it on the same day. Justice Khoo granted Impact the defense of fair comment. As The New Paper had essentially re-published the Impact report, it was also granted the same defense.
The judge's reason:
The writer of the Impact article, Mrs. Mary Carpenter, based her story on articles written by Reverend Van Leen. As he was highly respected by the evangelical community, she had no reason to question him. She had also talked to two ex-members of the CCC. Finally, the law on fair comment makes allowance for people to feel and express themselves strongly - over an issue like religion. Said the judge: "I am quite satisfied that Mrs. Carpenter honestly believed what she wrote."
Where the church won
The report was okay - but the front page headline was not. Judge Khoo ruled that The New Paper's Page 1 had to be treated separately from the report inside. His verdict was that the banner headline went beyond honest comment.
Why it's not a cult
Yes, its beliefs and practices are controversial to mainstream Christian churches. But this does not mean the CCC is a cult, ruled Justice Khoo. He took "cult" to mean a group with doctrines "so extreme" it would be shunned by "right-thinking" people. He said the CCC wasn't a cult as it "was not a commune of half-crazed people" nor a "secret organization" with a hidden agenda.
However, he acknowledged that there would be many mainstream Christians who believed strongly the CCC was a cult.
If this case were tried in a mainly-Christian country, said the judge, "I am sure the jury would find that the CCC was indeed a cult." But in multi-racial Singapore, the culture is to tolerate other religions. "Many (religious groups) are represented here. Each has its own beliefs and practices, some of which might appear to an outside to be strange and extraordinary."