Terengganu sultanah wins libel appeal, awarded RM300,000 in damages

The Court of Appeal rules that the trial judge erred in dismissing her suit last year.

(FMT) – The Court of Appeal has awarded RM300,000 in damages to Terengganu’s Sultanah Nur Zahirah after finding Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle Brown and two others liable for defamation.

Justice Azahari Kamal Ramli, who delivered the unanimous decision allowing the sultanah’s appeal, said the trial judge had erred in dismissing the suit last year.

The appeal was heard on Sept 22 by a three-member bench led by Justice Hadhariah Syed Ismail, joined by Justices Zaini Mazlan and Azahari.

The bench also ordered the respondents, Rewcastle Brown, publisher Chong Ton Sin and printer Vinlin Press Sdn Bhd, to pay the sultanah RM120,000 in costs.

Earlier, lawyer Vishnu Kumar called on the appeals court to consider the sultanah’s reputation, the nature of the libel and the extent of its publication.

He said if the respondents were found liable, the court must take into account that the sultanah is a former Raja Permaisuri Agong, the chancellor of two universities, and involved in charity work, when awarding damages.

Rewcastle Brown’s refusal to tender an apology when one was demanded was also a factor which the court must consider, he added.

Vishnu said Rewcastle Brown had in her evidence before the High Court said that some 2,000 copies of the book were sold to the public.

The lawyer, who appeared with Haaziq Pillai Abdullah, said the libel took place at the height of the 1MDB scandal.

Lawyer Americk Sidhu, representing Rewcastle Brown, the publisher and the printer, said the sultanah was only entitled to a nominal sum in damages should the court rule in her favour.

“She and Sarawak Report have done a great service to the people and nation here by exposing the 1MDB financial scandal,” he said.

Americk said the respondents had, from the very start, conceded that this was a case of mistaken identity as the person Rewcastle Brown intended to refer to in the impugned passage was the sister of the Terengganu ruler and not the sultanah.

On Nov 7 last year, the High Court ruled that a statement in Rewcastle Brown’s book, The Sarawak Report: The Inside Story of the 1MDB Expose, was not defamatory of the sultanah.

The sultanah initiated the RM300 million defamation suit in 2018, claiming that Rewcastle Brown had disparaged her in the book, which tells the story behind Sarawak Report’s investigations into the 1MDB scandal.

She claimed the statement suggested that she was involved in corrupt practices, had interfered in Terengganu’s administration and used her status to influence the establishment of the Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA), as 1MDB was previously known.

She further alleged that the statement could be construed to mean that she had helped Low Taek Jho secure his position as adviser to TIA.

In her defence, Rewcastle Brown claimed that she had made an “honest mistake” when identifying the “key player” in the impugned statement as the “wife of the sultan”. She claimed that she should have referred to the sultan’s sister instead.