TOC case: Govt cannot invoke harassment law

High Court overturns district court ruling on a doctor's statements against Mindef

The High Court ruled yesterday that the Government cannot invoke a law that protects people from harassment against socio-political blog The Online Citizen (TOC), which had published statements made by a doctor against the Ministry of Defence (Mindef).

Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon overturned a ruling by a district court that the statements could be published only if they came with a note to state they had been declared false by the courts.

The case turned on the legal question of whether the Government can be considered a "person" under Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act, which allows victims of false statements to seek remedies from the court.

In the current case, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) had invoked the provision against Dr Ting Choon Meng, co-founder of medical device firm MobileStats Technologies, and the five individuals who run TOC.

In 2011, MobileStats sued Mindef for patent infringement, claiming the ministry had copied its concept of a mobile emergency medical station. But the firm dropped its claim in January last year, citing a lack of funds. As a result, MobileStats' patent was revoked.

In January this year, TOC posted an interview with Dr Ting about the case. Mindef responded with a statement on Facebook.

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ignored demands to stop making his statements about Mindef, the AGC applied for a court order that his comments could not be published unless they came with a note to say that they were false and that the truth was in Mindef's statement.

Mindef took issue with Dr Ting's statement that it had knowingly infringed his patent and his claim that it had delayed court proceedings to wear him down financially.

Lawyers Eugene Thuraisingam, who acted for TOC, and Choo Zheng Xi, acting for Dr Ting, argued that Mindef was not entitled to the provision.

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

JC See allowed the appeal on the basis that the Government is not a "person" under the provision and cannot apply for such an order.

He found only the second statement to be false, as it was not Mindef but vendor Syntech Engineers that conducted the litigation.

He also noted that TOC had presented Mindef's side of the story on its site.

Mr Thuraisingam and Mr Choo told The Straits Times that they did not seek costs against the AGC as the case involved a novel question of law of public interest.

Mindef and the AGC are studying the written grounds before deciding on the next course of action.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'TOC case: Govt cannot invoke harassment law'. Print Edition | Subscribe