Half-Truth And Defamation: The Perils Of Incomplete Information
In today’s digital age, the dissemination of information made rapid through social media and online platforms has facilitated the spread of half-truths, where partial facts may be presented without context necessary to the picture. Incomplete information, where crucial facts are deliberately omitted, can lead to distorted perceptions and potential defamation. The recent Court of Appeal case of Tan Sri David Chiu Tat-Cheong v Seena Elizabeth Soy  3 MLJ 674 highlights the perils of half-truths and its potential to result in defamation.
The case revolves around a WhatsApp group chat for the Waldorf & Windsor Towers Service Apartments’ (W&W) owners, a development by Malaysia Land Properties Sdn Bhd (Mayland). Notably, several legal actions had previously taken place between the W&W owners and Mayland, with the Plaintiff (Tan Sri David Chiu Tat-Cheong) serving as Mayland's chairman and founder. In one of these actions, the court found Mayland liable for false misrepresentation against the W&W owners concerning a common area.
The Defendant (Seena Elizabeth Soy), a unit owner of a property at W&W, sent a text message (the impugned text) in the WhatsApp group chat. The impugned text contained references to Mayland's activities and stated that the Plaintiff and his father had been arrested and charged for financial misconduct offences in Hong Kong. However, the Defendant conveniently omitted a crucial fact - the Plaintiff had been acquitted of these charges over two decades ago.
Aggrieved by the impugned text, the Plaintiff brought a defamation action against the Defendant. The Plaintiff contended that the impugned text was a ‘half-truth’ as it failed to mention the Plaintiff’s subsequent acquittal, leading to a false impression. In response, the Defendant argued that she was merely reporting the fact that the Plaintiff had been arrested and charged, which should not be equated with guilt. Additionally, the Defendant claimed that the impugned text was not meant to be a comprehensive account of the matter and that she had urged the WhatsApp group participants to research for more information.
High Court’s Decision
After examining the impugned text, the High Court concluded that it was not defamatory of the Plaintiff. The High Court ruled that when an allegation is made, an ordinary reasonable reader would understand the text as a mere allegation. Therefore, stating that the Plaintiff was in the past arrested and charged, which was true, could not be considered defamation.
The High Court acknowledged that the Defendant’s actions might be considered overzealous. However, the presence of a disclaimer in the impugned text, inviting readers to do their own research and find out more, was seen as mitigating the situation. As such, the High Court found no malice on the Defendant’s part.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
The central issue at the appeal stage was whether the publication of a ‘half-truth’ could constitute a false statement. Malice played a crucial role in determining the Defendant's liability for defamation. The Court of Appeal found that the Defendant was fully aware of the Plaintiff’s acquittal but chose not to disclose this to the participants in the WhatsApp group. This omission was viewed as deliberate and as such, significantly warranting an inference of malice.
The court further held that the disclaimer did not absolve the Defendant from liability for defamation because:
“the omission to paint the full picture was the very nature and essence of the concept of ‘half-truth’ which established liability for defamation in circumstances where the failure to present the requisite information portrayed a false impression in the minds of the ordinary person”.
As such, the Court of Appeal set aside the High Court's decision.
Even though the Plaintiff’s arrest and charges were true, the defence of justification failed to hold its ground as the impugned text’s overall impression painted a picture of utter falsity. The impugned text wrongly equated the Plaintiff with Mayland, ascribing or imputing Mayland’s wrongful conduct to the Plaintiff’s previous arrest and charge, resulting in an inherently and egregiously defamatory portrayal of the Plaintiff as dishonest and a fraudster.
The Court of Appeal’s decision underscores the dangers posed by half-truths in defamation cases. Though containing elements of truth, half-truths can be misleading when crucial information is omitted, leading to false impressions and potential defamation. In Lim Guan Eng v Urusan Melayu (M) Bhd  2 MLJ 394, the High Court held that:
“Half-truths are no truth at all and definitely bear out an intention to deliberately mislead and malign unfairly the party who was the subject of such statement, in this case, the plaintiff.”
Similarly, in MD Mineralsearch Inc v East Kootenay Newspapers Ltd  209 DLR 4th 375, the British Columbian Court of Appeal held that:
“…however, that in some cases a report made up of only true facts may still present an untrue impression. Although the article contained only the true facts of the conviction, it gave an impression of the respondent that the trial judge said ‘was misleading and potentially damaging to its reputation’. The respondent’s complaint was not about the true contents of the article, but the false impression the article gave that the respondent set out to deceive consumers or potential consumers by committing a ‘deceptive business practice’. Because the impression created by the article was false, truth cannot be relied on as a defence.”
The case highlights the delicate balance between free speech and responsible communication. While the former is a fundamental right, it comes with the responsibility to present accurate and complete information. The intentional manipulation of facts can lead to defamation and reputational damage, making it crucial for individuals to exercise their right to expression responsibly.
The Court of Appeal's decision serves as a stark reminder of the perils of half-truths in the digital age. It emphasises that presenting half-truths, even when some elements are true, can lead to defamation. In short, individuals must exercise their rights to expression responsibly, ensuring that the information they share is accurate, complete and not misleading.
1 August 2023