PUTRAJAYA: Terengganu’s Sultanah Nur Zahirah must be awarded up to RM750,000 in damages should the Court of Appeal find that she was defamed by Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle Brown and two others.
The sultanah’s lawyer, Vishnu Kumar, said the appellate court must consider her reputation, the nature of the libel, and the extent of the publication.
He said the court should also take into account Rewcastle Brown’s refusal to tender an apology when one was demanded.
“She is a former Raja Permaisuri Agong, the chancellor of two universities, and involved in charity work,” he said in his submission on the quantum of damages to be awarded if the defendants are found liable.
Vishnu said Rewcastle Brown had, in her evidence before the High Court last year, said some 2,000 copies of the book had been sold to the public.
“The libel also took place at the height of the 1MDB scandal,” he said.
Vishnu, who appeared with Haaziq Pillay Abdullah, said Rewcastle Brown did not extend any expression of regret before the case went to trial.
“The defendant said there was a correction in the first print of the book but, unfortunately, there was no apology,” he said in the hearing before a three-member bench chaired by Justice Hadhariah Syed Ismail.
Sitting with Hadhariah were Justices Zaini Mazlan and Azahari Kamal Ramli.
He said Sultanah Nur Zahirah was not seeking mega damages despite pleading for RM100 million from each defendant in her statement of claim.
Vishnu also said the trial judge had committed an error in law and had taken irrelevant considerations into account when dismissing the sultanah’s claim after a full trial.
Lawyer Americk Sidhu, who appeared for Rewcastle Brown, publisher Chong Ton Sin and printer Vinlin Press Sdn Bhd, said the sultanah was only entitled to a nominal sum in damages should the court find in her favour.
“She and Sarawak Report had done a great service to the people and nation here to expose the 1MDB financial scandal,” he said.
Americk said if his clients were found liable, the sultanah was only entitled to a “negligible sum” in damages based on the circumstances of the case.
He said the defendants 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.
“A mistake does not imply that the impugned passage is defamatory,” he said, adding that then judicial commissioner Lee Kien How @ Johan Abdullah had come to the right finding when dismissing the suit.
He said Sultanah Nur Zahirah had, during cross-examination, also agreed that the sultan was smart for pulling out of the Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA), a sovereign wealth fund.
TIA later came to be known as 1MDB.
“She replied in the affirmative that any praise showered on the ruler will be extended to (members of) the royal household, including to her,” he said.
Hadhariah said the bench needed time to deliberate on the submissions by parties and fixed Dec 12 to deliver its decision.
On Nov 7 last year, Johan ruled that a statement contained in Rewcastle Brown’s book, “The Sarawak Report: The Inside Story of the 1MDB Expose”, was not defamatory of the sultanah.
The impugned statement read: “(Fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low) was also friendly with a key player in Terengganu, the wife of the sultan, whose acquiescence was needed to set up the fund and he later cited her support as having been crucial to his obtaining the advisory position.”
“I see no defamatory imputation from the statements although there was obviously a matter of mistaken identity. Thus, the plaintiff’s case is, hereby, dismissed,” said Lee.
Sultanah Nur Zahirah had 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 and had interfered in Terengganu’s administration and used her status to influence the establishment of TIA.
She further alleged that the statement could also be construed to mean that she had helped Low 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 ought to have referred to the sultan’s sister instead.
Despite the factual error, the judge said Rewcastle Brown’s statement that the sultanah consented or agreed to the establishment of the sovereign wealth fund did not degrade her reputation in any way.
Likewise, he said, a person would not be discredited in any way simply because he or she supported someone for a job, especially given that such support, including by way of letters of support, is much part of Malaysian culture.
Moreover, Johan said, it was Low himself, who claimed he had the support of the sultanah for the position of adviser to TIA.