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High Court rejects TOC’s appeal against Pofma correction direction over alleged police bullying

SINGAPORE — A High Court judge on Monday (July 25) dismissed an appeal filed by now-defunct sociopolitical site The Online Citizen (TOC) against a correction direction issued under Singapore's fake news law, since the website was already deactivated.
The Online Citizen website re-published content from an Instagram users that showed police officers allegedly bullying an older woman in Yishun for not wearing a mask. The police said that these allegations are untrue.
The Online Citizen website re-published content from an Instagram users that showed police officers allegedly bullying an older woman in Yishun for not wearing a mask. The police said that these allegations are untrue.
  • The Online Citizen, which is now defunct, appealed against a Pofma correction direction
  • It had re-published content from Instagram that accused police officers of bullying a woman with dementia
  • High Court judge Aedit Abdullah dismissed the appeal, saying it was moot because the website is not in operation anymore
  • In any case, he said the subject statement in question was one of fact, not opinion

SINGAPORE — A High Court judge on Monday (July 25) dismissed an appeal filed by now-defunct sociopolitical site The Online Citizen (TOC) against a correction direction issued under Singapore's fake news law, since the website was already deactivated.

That meant that even if the appeal succeeded, it would not have made a difference, Justice Aedit Abdullah said in a written judgement issued to the media. 

The case concerns Instagram posts about an older woman with dementia, in which a user accused police officers of bullying the woman in Yishun last year.

The Instagram user called "@nichology" alleged that four officers had clustered around the woman who took off her mask because she was feeling breathless, and continued telling her off even though she put a mask on later.

TOC re-published the series of Instagram Stories, which stay on a user’s account for only 24 hours, on its Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pages.

The police later refuted these posts and released footage from one of its officer’s body-worn cameras, saying that the four officers had been helping her to find her way home instead.

This prompted the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Office to issue correction directions against TOC, Instagram user @nichology and the Singapore Uncensored website.

While TOC — which was run by Terry Xu and went defunct in September last year — complied by posting a correction notice on its Facebook page, it also asked Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam to cancel the direction.

TOC then took to the High Court to appeal against Mr Shanmugam’s decision to reject their cancellation application.

'NO PRACTICAL CONSEQUENCE'

On Monday, Justice Abdullah said that the appeal should be dismissed on the sole ground that its outcome was moot, given that TOC’s websites and social media accounts are not operational now.

“Here, any vindication of TOC’s position would not lead to any practical consequence,” he added.

TOC’s lawyer Lim Tean had maintained that they still wished to pursue the appeal as a matter of principle.

In any case, the judge ruled that the subject statement in question was not a true statement of fact.

The subject statement, as stated in the Pofma correction direction, was: “The police reprimanded and taunted the elderly woman, shown in the Instagram Story... on 18 May 2021, for not wearing a mask.” 

TOC put forth several reasons in arguing that the correction direction was wrongly issued, including that the subject statement was a creation of Mr Shanmugam and did not appear in its posts or the original Instagram Stories.

TOC also argued that the statement in the Instagram Stories was one of opinion only, as opposed to fact.

In response, three state counsels who appeared for the Attorney-General (AG) — representing the Ministry of Home Affairs — argued that it was correctly issued and TOC’s reporting did not make it any less of a statement of fact.

The AG also said that TOC amending its posts to include the police’s rebuttal statement was “immaterial”, because the nature of the subject statement remained the same.

The correction direction was over TOC’s posts on May 18 last year, while TOC edited its report the following day.

The AG added that a police report filed by the woman’s daughter-in-law, along with the woman’s own responses during a video interview with Xu’s friend, “raises serious concerns about her mental faculty and the reliability of what she said”.

The video interview was eventually posted on TOC’s Facebook page. It led to Mr Shanmugam calling the site malicious and despicable for twisting facts.

LONG STRETCH TO INTERPRET POLICE AS TAUNTING WOMAN 

Justice Abdullah found that an objective interpretation of the subject material “discloses that there were four policemen telling off and taunting an elderly lady”. There was thus sufficient basis for the subject statement, he said.

He also ruled that it was clear the statement was untrue, and not a statement of opinion.

As for TOC’s argument that it merely reported what had been posted and edited its report to include the police’s response, Justice Abdullah said that TOC's defence of honest or bona fide reporting was not covered under Pofma.

TOC's actions also did not detract from the subject statement falling within Pofma’s definition of a statement of fact.

The judge further found that the police officers in question were not reprimanding and taunting the woman, and said that he “could not see” how Instagram User @nichology could have concluded this as well.

Justice Abdullah said that he considered the evidence and additional video footage apart from the body-worn camera footage from one officer.

The judge wrote: “While the officers were not soothing, or obsequious, or mollifying, it would be a very long stretch to characterise their behaviour as scolding in any way, and certainly not reprimanding or taunting.

“At the very most, they were perhaps paternalistic or nagging, but there was no element of sharpness, insult, scorn, disrespect or cruelty, let alone any hint of an intention to anger or cause pain or jeer. There was also no sarcasm present.”

Related topics

court Pofma online falsehoods TOC Terry Xu K Shanmugam Instagram

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