Church not a cult but loses all but one suit

November 11, 1997
By Tan Ooi Boon

The High Court yesterday ruled that the Central Christian Church (CCC) was not a cult but the church still failed in all but one of its defamation suits against two newspapers and a magazine because the reports were written fairly and in the public interest.

Justice Warren Khoo held that the defendants -- the editors of The New Paper, the Chinese-language evening daily Lianhe Wanbao, and the Christian magazine, Impact -- had succeeded in showing that they had been honest in expressing their comment when they called the church "a cult" in reports published in November 1991.

So the judge struck out four of the five defamation suits brought by the church and its founder, Mr John Philip Louis.

But the church succeeded in part in its suit against The New Paper because, while Justice Khoo held that the newspaper's report was fair, the prominent front-page headline "2 Cults Exposed" was not. The judge felt that the headline amounted to sensationalism.

So the church was entitled to claim damages for the defamatory headline. This amount will be determined later in a separate hearing. But Mr Louis was not entitled to any compensation because his name did not appear on TNP's front page, the judge said.

His other claims failed because the judge had said at the beginning of the trial in July this year that his case "would stand or fall" with the church's case. Delivering the ruling in a written judgment yesterday, Justice Khoo said that while the editors had failed to justify their calling the church "a cult", their reports or comment on the church were "something a fair-minded person could honestly have made".

Given the national cultural habit of tolerance and acceptance of different religious faiths in Singapore, he said, most Singaporeans, especially the non-Christians, would probably not consider the church as a cult.

He added: "However, it would not be difficult to find a substantial number of people, particularly those in the mainstream Christian faith, who believe, perhaps quite strongly, that the CCC is a cult."

He pointed out that the law would allow the right of these people to express such a view if they did so honestly and within reasonable bounds.

This, he said, was because such "fair comment" was "an essential part of the greater right of free speech".

In this case, said the judge, the word "cult" did not mean the church was dangerous and destructive, but that it was "a group with such extreme doctrine and practice that it should be shunned by right-thinking members of society".

There was no doubt, he noted, that the subject matter of the publication was of public interest.

But the judge said the defence of fair comment succeeded in this case because given the evidence, an honest man could also have said what the defendants had reported in their articles.

He said: "It is the bane of any new religious movement on the fringe to be labelled a cult by those in the centre."

He ordered the lawyers for the parties to appear before him on a date to be fixed later to argue on legal costs and the damages for the church in its suit against TNP.

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