(Updated)

Federal Court rules govt officials can sue for defamation in Guan Eng case against Perkasa's Ibrahim Ali

Federal Court rules govt officials can sue for defamation in Guan Eng case against Perkasa's Ibrahim Ali
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PUTRAJAYA (Feb 26): The Federal Court today ruled that a government official can sue for defamation in his or her official capacity, in a suit brought by Lim Guan Eng against Perkasa.

The three-judge bench — comprising Datuk Nallini Pathmanathan, Datuk Abdul Rahman Sebli and Datuk Harmindar Singh Dhaliwal — overturned a Court of Appeal decision which ruled that Guan Eng, in his capacity as the then Penang chief minister, could not sue the media for defamation in his official capacity.

In a majority decision, the court ruled that former Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali has to pay RM150,000 in damages to Guan Eng, upholding a prior High Court decision that ruled the same, prior to the appeal.

Harmindar, in reading out the Federal Court's judgement today, said the Court of Appeal erred in its earlier decision in the case of Utusan Melayu against former Pahang menteri besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob, that a public official could not sue anyone, including the media, for defamation.

Adnan Yaakob’s case was used as a benchmark in Guan Eng’s appeal, during which then Court of Appeal Judge Tan Sri Rohana Yusuf ruled that the court was bound by the ruling in Adnan Yaakob’s case.

“A public official must be allowed the same rights as any person and allowed to sue for defamation. The Adnan Yaakob case cannot be sustained,” Harmindar said today in overruling the Court of Appeal's decision.

Guan Eng, as the then chief minister of Penang, was labelled as a “Singapore agent” by Ibrahim.

The court also awarded RM50,000 in costs to former finance minister Guan Eng.

Justice Nallini concurred with Justice Harmindar, while Justice Abdul Rahman dissented in the 2-1 decision.

Justice Abdul Rahman said Guan Eng filed the defamation suit in his official capacity.

He said Guan Eng, who filed the action in his official capacity, was not properly represented by a government legal officer as required under the Government Proceedings Act, and that there was no fiat, or formal authorisation, produced by the law firm representing him.

Guan Eng, who is also DAP's secretary-general, filed the defamation suit in 2012 against Ibrahim and six others.

He claimed that former Perkasa information chief, the late Ruslan Kassim, published a statement on Perkasa's website on Oct 1, 2011 which implied that he was endangering national security by exposing the country's secrets to Singapore.

On March 26, 2015, the High Court found Ibrahim, together with Ruslan, Perkasa, The New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd (NSTP) and its former group editor Syed Nazri Syed Harun, Utusan Melayu (M) Sdn Bhd as well as its group editor-in-chief Abdul Aziz Ishak liable for defamation.

The High Court then ordered Perkasa to pay Guan Eng RM150,000 in damages, while NSTP and Utusan were to pay RM200,000 each. This ruling, however, was overturned by the Court of Appeal later.

On March 5, 2019, Guan Eng applied with the Federal Court to obtain leave to appeal to overturn the Court of Appeal's decision against Perkasa, Ibrahim and Ruslan. Guan Eng withdrew his application for leave to appeal against NSTP and Utusan Melayu on March 5, 2019 after the mainstream media conceded to reinstate the High Court's decision and agreed to pay RM200,000 each in damages to him.

Subsequently, in July that year, Guan Eng obtained leave to appeal to the Federal Court against the Court of Appeal's decision. However, on the outset of his appeal's hearing on Sept 22 last year, Guan Eng withdrew his legal action against Ruslan, who had passed away.

The proceedings were conducted via Zoom this morning.

Surin Murugiah & Tan Choe Choe