Chau Chak Wing, a Chinese-Australian billionaire, leaving court in Sydney in June. Credit: Peter Rae/EPA, via Shutterstock
SYDNEY, Australia — A billionaire businessman won a defamation case on Friday against a media organization that he claimed had wrongly linked him to a bribery case that implicated a former president of the United Nations General Assembly.
The businessman, Chau Chak Wing, a well-connected political donor in Australia, was awarded 280,000 Australian dollars ($200,000) in damages in the verdict against Fairfax Media and the journalist John Garnaut. Fairfax said it was appealing the decision.
In an October 2015 article, the Sydney Morning Herald, a Fairfax newspaper, reported Mr. Chau’s supposed connection with an international bribery scandal involving John Ashe, a former president of the United Nations General Assembly. The article was published around the time that American prosecutors charged that Mr. Ashe had accepted bribes from Chinese businessmen to support their interests at the United Nations and Mr. Ashe’s native Antigua. Mr. Ashe died in 2016.
After Friday’s ruling, Mr. Chau, a billionaire property developer who immigrated to Australia decades ago and has faced previous accusations of using his money to meddle in the country’s politics on behalf of China, said he would continue to donate to “worthy causes as I have always done.”
“I make no apology for my philanthropy, and consider it a duty to give back after the good fortune I have experienced with my business,” he said in a statement. “As an Australian citizen, I will continue to proudly promote positive Australia-China relations.”
“I am in the fortunate position where I have the resources available to me to defend myself when media outlets make false and misleading claims, through the Australian legal system,” he said.
In his ruling, Justice Michael Wigney said Mr. Garnaut’s October 2015 article “detailed Dr. Chau’s apparent wealth, the various political and other donations he had made in Australia over the years, and his contacts and associations with certain Australian politicians on both sides of the divide.”
“It appeared to somehow link the bribery allegations with Dr. Chau’s donations and political connections,” the judge wrote.
Referring to Kingold, one of Mr. Chau’s companies, the judge said the article suggested that it was “likely to have much more to tell, while we all learn whether the extraordinary Kingold kingdom of Australia and China relations was built upon illicit payments and hot air.”
Justice Wigney said that while Mr. Garnaut asserted that “he had taken care to avoid conveying anything beyond a strong suspicion that Dr. Chau had bribed Mr. Ashe, I was not satisfied that Mr. Garnaut had in fact exercised reasonable care.”
“Had he done so, he would not have used the sensationalist, hyperbolic and generally derisive language that he used in the article,” the judge added. “Nor would he have included the assertions about Dr. Chau possibly remaining in China to avoid extradition.”
Mr. Chau’s lawyer, Mark O’Brien, said that his client was currently in Australia, and assertions that he was too worried to return were “completely inaccurate and that’s why we sued.”
In a statement, Fairfax Media said it was disappointed that the judge “did not uphold our public interest defense, which was the only one available to us under Australian defamation law, and was not persuaded by our evidence.”
Mr. Garnaut defended his reporting, saying: “I took great care in compiling this story, building on six years of close observation. I believe the story was reported fairly, responsibly and in the public interest.”
Andrew Hastie, an Australian lawmaker who has been critical of Mr. Chau, assailed the verdict.
“Generally speaking, we are concerned about the impact that defamation laws in Australia are having on responsible journalism that informs Australians about important national security issues,” he said.
Several Australian politicians have accused China of meddling in the country’s politics, and last year Parliament passed a foreign interference law that requires foreign lobbyists to register on a public list. The legislation also makes it illegal to engage in any covert activity on behalf of a foreign government that aims to influence the process of Australian politics — including activities typically protected in a democracy, like organizing a rally.
Previously, Duncan Lewis, Australia’s intelligence chief, identified Mr. Chau, an Australian citizen, as a possible agent of China’s government.
Mr. Lewis, the director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, warned politicians against accepting contributions from Mr. Chau.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation faces a separate defamation case filed by Mr. Chau for its reporting.
Originally published at www.nytimes.com on February 22, 2019.