by Bertha Henson
IT IS not what the Court of Appeal said about the Protection of Harassment Act that is important, but what the G is going to do.
The Court of Appeal said the G cannot be defined as a person under the Act, that is, it is not an entity which could feel emotionally or psychologically distressed by falsehoods. It also held that The Online Citizen (TOC) need not notify its readers about the falsehoods which it had published regarding Dr Ting Meng Choong’s allegations that Mindef was out to do him in.
You, our readers, are the reason we exist. Your contributions allow us to bring fair and balanced news to everyone, regardless of the ability to donate. Support us by being our patron.
Now, this was a two-to-one judgement with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon holding the dissenting opinion. The other two judges Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang said that a reading of Parliamentary reports when the Bill was going through Parliament in 2014, showed that Law Minister K Shanmugam was focused on giving “people” a “low-tier remedy” against harassment. Mindef is not “people” and has plenty of resources to make its side of the story heard, they said.
Here comes the Law ministry itself.
It said that the G’s policy was to “allow natural persons, as well as the Government and corporations” to use the Act. (So it seems the two judges mis-read Mr Shanmugam? Or did he mis-speak?)
It noted the courts had agreed that TOC had indeed published falsehoods such as Dr Ting’s accusation that Mindef had deliberately infringed his patent on a medical device and was waging a “war of attrition” by dragging out a trial to wear him out financially.
Although TOC had published Mindef’s response in full and linked it to the Dr Ting article, Mindef went to court to get TOC to make clear that the article contained false statements of fact, so readers would know immediately on reading.
The case went from District Court to High Court to the apex Court of Appeal with the majority ruling that only “natural person can rely on the provision to get those who have published falsehoods to also publish corrections and the true facts”.
This is an interesting case which touches on who can use the law to press publishers into making corrections, even if the erroneous or misleading story doesn’t distress any one person emotionally or psychologically.
The two judges had read Mr Shanmugam’s answers in Parliament in one way, while CJ Sundaresh Menon read it in the opposite way. For example, what to make of Mr Shanmugam’s answer to Workers’ Party Pritam Singh’s question on whether the “persons” referred to in Bill could be corporate entities? Mr Shanmugam’s swift response was to refer to the Interpretation Act which, by the way, would be a yes.
The two judges said his answer was sandwiched between other responses and his speech was mainly about redress for victims. It was, they said, a “generic answer”. The CJ, however, said that in the absence of clarity, it was the Interpretation Act that judges must turn to for answers.
Likewise, is the existence of falsehood enough to justify the courts taking action? The two judges said it would not be “just and equitable” and came down on the side of TOC which they said had tried to give a balanced picture by publishing its response and providing a link
“Additionally, Mindef was anything but a helpless victim. It is a government agency possessed of significant resources and access to media channels. In the present case, Mindef was able to put across its side of the story through traditional media as well as on its Facebook page.”
CJ Menon, however, thought that TOC’s actions were “insufficient” and “inadequate” to draw attention to draw attention to the falsehood and the true facts in the case. In his view, getting TOC to merely notify readers that the article had false statements was a “low-level restriction”.
Now, the Law ministry didn’t describe the article as “fake news”, which it said “has become a major problem for many societies” and destructive of the institutions of democracy.
“The Government notes the dissenting judgment of the learned Chief Justice, and the reasons the Chief Justice has given for his views. The Government will study the judgment, and consider what further steps it should take to correct the deliberate spreading of falsehoods.”
Oh dear. What’s next?
If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!
For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.