After having filed for protection under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), the Ministry of Law (Minlaw) now says “the Government has never said that it needed protection from harassment.” (See here.)
“This case… had nothing to do with harassment,” Minlaw said. “It was about false statements.”
The ministry was responding to a statement from the Workers’ Party (WP) following the judgement of the Court of Appeal (CA) in the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) vs Dr Ting Choon Meng/The Online Citizen (TOC) case.
The Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC), acting for the Government (and Mindef), made the application “to obtain an order for [the two parties involved] to be prevented from or to cease publication of a false statement of fact and, if so, when it would be “just and equitable” to do so.”
In a nutshell, the CA, in a split decision, upheld the High Court’s earlier decision and ruled in January that Mindef/the Government did not constitute a “person” under the Act and thus has no recourse to it.
The court also ruled that the AGC had failed to convince the court that it was “just and equitable” to grant its application against the two parties to be prevented from or to cease publication of the article in question. (Read the CA’s full judgement here.)
It is important to note how the highest court in the land arrived arrived at its decision, because this has implications for everyone who comments on the Government or government policies.
But we will come to this later.
For now, I want to address the Government’s claims that it had never sought protection from the POHA, and that the issue was actually about false statements being published or made.
On the first point, it is quite obvious that the government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth.
For one, it is very strange that it would file an application under the Protection from Harassment Act if it did not seek protection from harassment.
Two, if indeed its claims were true, it would have resorted to other means which were freely available to it, to correct what it saw as “false statements”, and leave it there. In fact, the Government did have its side of the story published in many of the mainstream media channels which, incidentally, it controls. However, it chose not to leave it there but went on to file for further action to be taken against the two parties under the POHA. This shows the Government was not satisfied with just having its side of the story told but instead claimed to be a victim who should be protected under the POHA.
Second – and let me address this head-on because it is a bogus claim of victimhood from the Government – this is the suggestion that somehow the Government (or Mindef) was a victim of “falsehood” or “false statements”.
First, as Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon stated in his High Court judgement, orders against false statements “should be confined to false statements capable of affecting their subjects emotionally or psychologically.”
This, JC See explained, “presupposes that the subject of the false statement is a human being, endowed with sentient consciousness and capacity to feel the impact of such falsehood.”
Mindef, being a non-human entity, therefore does not fall under the protection of the POHA.
However, it is to be noted that the judge also said that his decision “does not necessarily preclude recourse to s 15 whenever false statements are directed against entities other than human beings.”
He said that “an allegation ostensibly aimed at a corporate body might be, in substance, an allegation against the human beings who manage that corporate body.”
“If that is so, it is open to those human beings to seek redress under s 15 of the Act, and nothing in my decision in these appeals should be taken to exclude that possibility.”
So, it is still possible for corporate bodies – and perhaps even the government – to invoke the POHA if the individuals in those bodies were seen to have been harassed.
But let’s leave that for the courts to decide if and when such a case should arise.
For now, the High Court has determined that the Government/Mindef is not a living, breathing, natural person endowed with emotions which could be harassed.
Next, the CA itself has said that “Mindef was anything but a helpless victim.”
The judges said:
“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.”
This truly puts paid to the AGC’s bogus claim that Mindef was a victim of “false statements.”
Let’s pause and take a minute here to ponder on the channels available to the Government to get its message across, and to address any “false statements” it felt needed to be addressed.
In the mainstream media, which the Government controls, the following are just the main channels opened to it to disseminate its views:
The English newspapers:
- The Straits Times (print)
- The Straits Times (web)
- TODAY (print)
- TODAY (web)
- The New Paper (print)
- The New Paper (web)
- The Business Times (print)
- The Business Times (web)
- My Paper (print)
- My Paper (web)
- STOMP (web)
- Asia One (web)
- Tamil Murasu (print)
- Tamil Murasu (web)
- Berita Harian (print)
- Berita Harian (web)
- Lianhe Zaobao (print)
- Lianhe Zaobao (web)
- Lianhe Wanbao (print)
- Lianhe Wanbao (web)
- Shin Min Daily News (print)
- Shin Min Daily News (web)
- Channelnews Asia (English)
- Channel 5 (English)
- Channel 8 (Chinese)
- Channel U (Chinese)
- Suria (Malay)
- Vasantham (Tamil)
Broadcast Radio channels (according to Wikipedia):
- GOLD 905: G90
- Symphony 924: 924
- 938LIVE: 938LIVE
- CLASS 95: C95
- 987: 987FM
- Lush 99.5FM: LUSH
- YES 933: YES
- CAPITAL 95.8FM
- LOVE 97.2FM
- Ria 89.7FM: RIA
- Warna 94.2FM: WARNA
- Oli 96.8FM: OLI
One FM 91.3
Besides all these numerous media channels at the government’s disposal, there are also the many government websites such as REACH and Factually, and others, including online forums owned by the Government.
Mindef, too, has its own Facebook page and website where it publishes its own news.
Then there are the many Facebook pages of the government ministries and government ministers, Members of Parliament of the People’s Action Party, Facebook pages of the PAP and government supporters, including an infamous page run by rabid PAP fanatics.
And not to forget that if the Government wanted to, it also has access to Parliament where it enjoys an overwhelming majority. The Government has used it in the past to address what it saw as “falsehoods” propagated by others.
So, as is patently clear, the government is not short of media channels to get its views across.
To thus claim that it is somehow a victim of “false statements” is laughable, and quite dishonest in fact.
Just look at the list above.
Ask yourself a simple question: TOC’s viewership is miniscule, compared to the collective readership and viewership of the Government’s mainstream media channels combined. How then is it possible to claim that one “false statement” is capable of doing so much damage that the Government has to resort to the courts to thump it down and have it removed?
The facts prove that this is a ludicrous claim.
And this is especially so when TOC itself had also published Mindef’s side of the story!
Mindef was no victim.
It was accorded its right to reply, and it chose not to do so.
So, why is Mindef – and indeed, the government itself – so special that it felt it qualified to be protected under the harassment Act which was instituted to protect the vulnerable?
I am not sure. Perhaps claiming victimhood is more convenient than being patients and mature and debate issues.
Let us take a recent example of how our national carrier, Singapore Airlines (SIA), dealt with a similar problem in a mature way. Hopefully, the Government will shed its thin skin and learn from the airline.
In February, news that a SIA stewardess was found dead in a San Francisco hotel room began to circulate in the mainstream media.
Shortly after, one “Philip Lim” posted online and “claimed SIA crew avoid taking sick leave even when ill because it would affect their chances of a promotion.”
“He also claimed SIA rewards its flight crew if they maintain an MC-free year,” said The New Paper.
Now, did SIA file for court order to restrain Mr Lim or to demand that he removed his posting?
Well, not as far as I know.
But SIA did refute his claims. (You can read it here.)
The company went to explain its policies regarding the use of medical certificates by its crew.
There was no letter of demand sent by SIA to Mr Lim. There was no invocation of the POHA. There were no cries or pretensions of victimhood.
SIA stated its case, calmly, maturely and factually, to the media.
Why can’t the government do the same?
Why the need to raise hell, and cry bloody murder at the slightest perceived provocation?
One of the problems with the government is that it is averse to engaging those who may disagree with it.
For example, it will engage the mainstream media and indeed send its statements or responses to them, but not to other non-government controlled channels, such as TOC and other websites.
This is its choice, of course.
But it cannot then turn around and claim to have been victimised if it refuses to respond to requests for its side of the story, just as in this case with TOC.
TOC had asked it for its views – but it refused to even acknowledge TOC’s queries.
Here was what JC See said about what TOC had done:
“It is not disputed that although The Online Citizen did not concede that it had made any false statements, it not only published MINDEF’s Facebook statement in full but also provided a prominent link to MINDEF’s statement from the article containing Dr Ting’s video interview. Such efforts to present each party’s side of a story ought to be encouraged, and in my judgment they would be discouraged if s 15 orders were made as a matter of course despite these efforts having been made.”
And importantly, the judicial commissioner added:
“It is not immediately evident why “only a s 15(2) order would do” and why publication of MINDEF’s statement alone would be insufficient in the circumstances.”
In short, it is completely weak – given the facts – for the AGC to argue that the government needed the courts to grant its application to address “falsehoods” or “false statements” it claims are or were made against it.
The Government, unlike everyone else, already has numerous avenues to address such “falsehoods.”
Indeed, the entire mainstream media is at its disposal, at anytime.
In fact, both the High Court and the Court of Appeal observed that the Government (Mindef) had “put across its version of the facts online and in traditional manner in a fairly extensive manner… as well as on its Facebook page.”
It is thus bogus for Minlaw to say that it is not about harassment but about “false statements” being circulated.
Both courts have said the Government could and had made use of many channels to address this.
Finally, l will give the last word to JC See. Read and judge for yourself if the Government was helpless in addressing the “false statements” it claimed were made against it.
[Bold emphasis added by me.]
“As the allegation was disputed, MINDEF could and did put across its version of the facts online and in traditional media in a fairly extensive manner. In any event, the allegation was a relatively minor one in the sense that it concerned a rather narrow aspect of MINDEF’s conduct, ie, its alleged litigation strategy, and cannot be said to have gone anywhere near seriously impugning the core or essence of MINDEF’s identity or “character” or “personality”. Where this is so, I do not think an order under s 15 should be made as a matter of course lest the court’s resources be unduly burdened by an over-abundance of applications under s 15 of the Act.”