Singapore PM in court over defamation case against news blog writer

FILE PHOTO: Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attends the 22nd ASEAN Plus Three Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, November 4, 2019. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa/File Photo

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeared in court on Monday in his defamation suit against a Malaysian writer, over an article he has said contained false statements about the home of his late father, the city-state's first premier.

Lee filed a lawsuit against Rubaashini Shunmuganathan for her story on a Singapore news site in August 2019, which included references to a disagreement within the Lee family about what to do with the home of his father Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's modern-day founder.

The prime minister appeared briefly in court via video conference to reaffirm his affidavits, in which he said he was seeking damages from Shunmuganathan including aggravated damages.

He said he had obtained "judgment in default of appearance" by Shunmuganathan on Dec. 31. Shunmuganathan was not present in court and Reuters was unable to reach her.

"The article contained sensational allegations against me, the prime minister of Singapore, which were likely to attract a great deal of attention and go viral on the internet and on social networking sites," Lee said.

Senior figures in the ruling People's Action Party, including Lee Kuan Yew, have also previously sued foreign media and political opponents for defamation, saying such action id necessary to protect their reputations.

But some rights group, such as Human Rights Watch, say litigation stifles freedom of speech and political opposition.

In another recent defamation case, the high court in March ordered a blogger to pay Lee damages of S133,000 dollars. Leong Sze Hian raised money to cover that via crowdfunding on social media.

The family disagreement over the house has been about whether to demolish it, or let the government decide whether to make it a heritage landmark.

The prime minister has said his father was prepared to consider alternatives for the property if the government decided to list the site as a landmark and that he has recused himself from government discussions on the matter.

(Reporting by Chen Lin and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Editing by Martin Petty and Giles Elgood)

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