TOC argues against Pofma order over police 'bullying' allegations

·Senior Reporter
·4-min read
(PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore/Wee Teck Hian)
Terry Xu outside of the Supreme Court. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore/Wee Teck Hian)

SINGAPORE — The Online Citizen (TOC) argued for a correction direction that arose from several online posts alleging police “bullying” of an elderly woman to be set aside in the High Court on Wednesday (1 December).

Making its arguments during at an in-chambers hearing before Justice Aedit Abdullah, the now-defunct sociopolitical site said that the order by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was wrong as the statement within the correction direction did not appear in TOC’s 18 May posts. 

The statement is: "The police reprimanded and taunted the elderly woman, shown in the Instagram story by Instagram user @nichology on 18 May 2021, for not wearing a mask.”

TOC, which is represented by lawyer Lim Tean, further argued that its posts were based on an Instagram story by user @nichology, which contained opinions rather than statement of fact, and as such, did not come under the purview of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma). 

Lim also argued that Shanmugam had not discharged the burden of proof to show that the statements by @nichology were false, and that the minister was wrong to have directed that TOC post a correction notice on a separate Facebook post rather than in the posts that were the basis of the correction direction.

The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) argued that the statement did appear in TOC's posts and could be take by a reasonable person to be a statement of fact. If someone was reprimanded or taunted, it is an issue of objective fact, said State Counsels Tan Ee Kuan and Jocelyn Teo. Whether words of rebuke, or unkind or insulting words, were used, is a question of fact, they added.

The statement was further proven to be false as the police had not in fact scolded or taunted the woman for not wearing a mask, Tan and Teo said. 

TOC published three identical posts on its Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pages on 18 May about an Instagram story by user @nichology. 

The story claimed that four police officers had surrounded a woman who took off her mask because she was feeling breathless, and had continued reprimanding her even after she wore a mask. It also included a video of the officers interacting with the elderly woman.

On 19 May, the police refuted the allegations as untrue and stated that officers had been helping the 85-year-old woman with dementia to find her way home as she appeared lost. The officers were also concerned that she was hungry and bought her food. TOC updated its post to include the police's clarification. 

Body-worn camera footage of a police officer buying the woman a packet of food was later released.

On 21 May, Shanmugam instructed the Pofma Office to issue a direction to TOC, requiring it to post a correction notice in a new post on its Facebook page. The new post was supposed to state that an earlier post on its Facebook page contained a false statement of fact, and carry a link to a Factually article that set out the correct facts.

The same direction was issued to @nichology and Singapore Uncensored, both of which reportedly complied with the order.

TOC applied to the Ministry of Home Affairs to have the Pofma order cancelled but this was rejected in 28 May.

TOC’s arguments centred around how @nichology's post was an opinion rather than a statement of fact as the user was expressing his opinion of how the police treated the woman. He had used the words, “Here’s my point of view”, “Based on what I can see” and “to make a judgement based on”. It had also merely reported @nichology's allegations. 

To this, AGC said that the Court of Appeal had previously rejected the argument, ruling that even if a subject statement based on allegations was reproduced in a neutral report, it could still be a statement of fact and within the ambit of Pofma.

The site also argued that it was unheard of for a correction direction to stipulate that a correction notice be posted as a new post, as the norm is to have a correction notice appear on top of an original post being subjected to a Pofma order.

According to Lim, Justice Abdullah will deliver his judgment on the case on 15 December.

TOC, helmed by chief editor Terry Xu, was taken offline on 16 September after the Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA) suspended its class licence to run its website and social media. This was over TOC's repeated failure to comply with obligations to declare sources of funding. TOC is challenging IMDA's suspension in court.

The website and Xu have also been in and out of court over legal tussles involving defamation and previous Pofma orders.

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