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TOC’s lawyer Lim Tean says Shanmugam wrong to use Pofma over posts alleging police bullying; AGC says ‘no merit’ in appeal

SINGAPORE — A lawyer representing the defunct sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC) has argued that Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was wrong to issue his client a falsehood correction direction over social media posts that alleged police bullying earlier this year.

A screengrab from an online post accusing police officers of bullying an elderly woman in Yishun for not wearing a mask. The police have refuted the accusations, saying that the officers were helping her find her way home.

A screengrab from an online post accusing police officers of bullying an elderly woman in Yishun for not wearing a mask. The police have refuted the accusations, saying that the officers were helping her find her way home.

  • The Online Citizen was issued a correction order regarding social media posts it put up
  • It lawyer Lim Tean said the website had not used the wording contained within the order 
  • Mr Lim also said the order contained a “subject statement” that was a “creation” of Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam
  • In response, the Attorney-General’s Chambers said the subject statement is a reasonable interpretation of the social media posts

 

SINGAPORE — A lawyer representing the defunct sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC) has argued that Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was wrong to issue his client a falsehood correction direction over social media posts that alleged police bullying earlier this year.

To support his assertion, Mr Lim Tean of Carson Law Chambers laid out three reasons to the High Court on Wednesday (Dec 1), as he sought to appeal against the directive issued to his client. 

The reasons were brought up during an in-chamber hearing before Justice Aedit Abdullah on Wednesday.

They broadly touched on the posts being opinions, not facts; that the burden of proof was upon Mr Shanmugam; and that the minister had abused his power by issuing the correction direction.

In response, the Attorney-General’s Chambers said that there was “no merit” in TOC’s appeal.

WHAT HAPPENED

On May 21 this year, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) Office was instructed to issue correction directions to several parties, including an Instagram user, Singapore Uncensored and TOC over falsehoods alleging police bullying.

TOC applied to have the correction direction cancelled on May 26, but it was rejected and so, the site filed the appeal against it on June 8. 

Mr Lim said that the correction direction, issued by Mr Shanmugam, contained a “subject statement” — or a false statement of fact — that said: “The police reprimanded and taunted the elderly woman, shown in the Instagram story by Instagram user @nichology on 18 May 2021, for not wearing mask.” 

The Instagram user, a man known as Mr Nicholas Tan, had created a video montage on the social media channel that day, which alleged that four officers had clustered around a woman who took off her mask because she was feeling breathless, and they had continued telling her off even though she wore a mask later.

Mr Lim said that his client published three identical posts on its Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts that same day, which reported what Mr Tan had alleged.

On May 19, TOC updated its posts to include a clarification statement published by the Singapore Police Force.

The statement by the police refuted accusations that its officers were bullying the woman. The truth was that they were helping her find her way home.

THE THREE REASONS

Mr Lim argued that the subject statement in the correction direction is “a creation of the minister’s” and does not appear anywhere in Mr Tan's or his client’s posts.

He pointed out that Pofma makes it clear that only statements of facts come within the scope of the legislation.

“A minister cannot issue a correction direction over opinions (to) which he may object,” he said.

Mr Lim said that it was clear from Mr Tan’s post that he was “expressing opinion of how the police treated the old lady”, which caused him outrage.

The lawyer added that his client’s posts were “balanced and neutral” as it had included the accounts of both Mr Tan and the Singapore Police Force.

Furthermore, Mr Lim said that the police never disputed that there were four police officers at the scene as recounted by Mr Tan, or that one of the officers was speaking loudly at the old woman for not wearing a mask. 

On the burden of proof, Mr Lim said that Mr Shanmugam had not shown that the statements made by his client were false.

Among his arguments, Mr Lim said that the subject statement in the correction direction had no connection with the clarification post that the police had put up on Facebook on May 19.

In summary, the post by the police said that the following allegations were untrue:

  • Four police officers had “clustered an elderly auntie that took off her mask because she was feeling breathless”
  • The officers had continued to “tell her off” even though the woman had put on her mask 
  • Someone had to step in to “salvage the situation”

Mr Lim said that the police statement had nothing to do with allegations of intimidation or taunting, which were the basis of the subject statement.

Furthermore, the woman told an interviewer on video that she was bullied by the officers, he added. 

Mr Lim also said that despite numerous requests for the police to release the full video footage from the body cameras of the four officers at the scene, “which would be the best evidence” of what transpired, they had refused to do so.

Instead, he said that the police relied on the statement of one officer who had arrived late to the scene. 

Finally, Mr Lim said it was “noteworthy” that Mr Shanmugam had chosen not to take objections to any of the statements made by TOC in its posts. Rather, he created his own “summation” in the subject statement.

Mr Lim said that Mr Shanmugam did so because “he knew the appellant could prove the truth” of the statements. 

“This demonstrates the lack of bona fides in the minister’s issuance of the corrective direction in this instance, and is a clear abuse of his powers under Pofma.”

‘NO MERIT IN APPEAL’

The Attorney-General’s Chambers, represented by state counsels Tan Ee Kuan and Jocelyn Teo, said on Wednesday that there was “no merit” in TOC’s appeal.

They argued that the subject statement was derived from Mr Tan’s Instagram Story, which was later replicated by TOC in its social media posts.

They added that the Instagram Story used the phrase “continue to tell her off”, which plainly meant to convey that the police reprimanded her.

This was not true because the police “did not reprimand or taunt the elderly lady for not wearing a mask”, as suggested by TOC.

They also said that an “objective interpretation” of the posts would mean that an “appreciable segment” of TOC’s potential readership would “construe those posts as containing the subject statement”.

“As the single-meaning rule does not apply in the Pofma context, it suffices that the subject statement identified by the minister is a reasonable interpretation of the TOC posts."

In essence, the single-meaning rule is a term used in defamation law, which means that there must be only one interpretation of the words brought up in the complaint.  

“It is irrelevant that some may have understood the TOC posts differently. Hence, the TOC posts contain the subject statement,” the counsels said.

On the video interview with the woman, they said that it had no merit as well because her responses were not given under oath and besides, she was responding to leading questions.

“Further, the elderly lady’s memory or mental state is unclear… In any case, (her) responses do not assist TOC. Nowhere does (she) state that the police had reprimanded and taunted her for not wearing a mask.”

Mr Shanmugam had previously criticised TOC as "depicable" for "twisting facts" in the video interview with the woman, who has dementia. 

The police had also released footage from one of its officer’s body-worn cameras, with the permission of the woman's family, to debunk TOC’s version of the incident.

Justice Abdullah will deliver his judgement on the case on Dec 15.

Related topics

The Online Citizen TOC lim tean K Shanmugam Pofma police AGC

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