Rare split decision by apex court rules that Govt cannot invoke anti-harassment law against The Online Citizen website

The Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 that the Government cannot invoke an anti-harassment law that allows persons to stop the publication of false statements against them.
The Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 that the Government cannot invoke an anti-harassment law that allows persons to stop the publication of false statements against them.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - In a rare split decision, the Court of Appeal ruled, 2-1, that the Government cannot invoke an anti-harassment law that allows persons to stop the publication of false statements against them.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon was the sole dissenting judge, in a case which hinged on a narrow legal question of whether the Government can be considered a "person" under Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act.

Under the provision, a person who is a victim of false statements can seek remedies from the court.

In a judgment released on Monday (Jan 16), Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang agreed that the law applied only to human beings.

However, CJ Menon disagreed. He concluded that the Government does fall within the scope of "person" under the law and is able to apply under the provision for relief.

The decision came in a case in which the Attorney-General's Chambers had invoked the law against five individuals who ran socio-political blog The Online Citizen (TOC) and Dr Ting Choon Meng, co-founder of medical device firm MobileStats Technologies.

This was after TOC published an interview with Dr Ting in January 2015.

MobileStats Technologies had sued the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) in 2011 for infringing its patent for a mobile emergency medical station. The suit was eventually dropped.

Mindef responded with a statement on Facebook. It took issue with Dr Ting's statements in the interview that it had knowingly infringed his patent and that it had dragged out court proceedings to wear him down financially.

When Dr Ting ignored demands to stop making the statements, the AGC applied for a court order that the TOC could not publish his comments unless they came with a note to say that they were false and that Mindef's statement gave the truth.

In May 2015, a district judge found both of Dr Ting's statements to be false, and granted the AGC's application.

TOC, represented by Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, and Dr Ting, represented by Mr Choo Zheng Xi, appealed to the High Court, arguing that Mindef cannot apply for such an order as the Government is not a "person" under the provision.

Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon agreed, ruling that only human beings have the right to apply for such court orders.

The AGC then appealed to the Court of Appeal, the country's highest court.