Judgments reserved in two Pofma appeals

Apex court examines issue of reporting on allegations in The Online Citizen's appeal

What constitutes responsible journalism when reporting on allegations and how that would be practised under Singapore's laws against fake news came under examination yesterday, as the apex court heard The Online Citizen's (TOC) appeal against a correction direction it received.

The socio-political site, which had reported on a Malaysian rights group's claims of unlawful execution methods by the Singapore prisons, said it should be enough that it had asked the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for a response and indicated in the article that the claims were allegations.

TOC, represented by Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, also argued that it had not taken a position on the allegations, and this was clear if the article was read in full. Given this, TOC did not deserve to be issued a correction order, the lawyer said.

But the Attorney-General's Chambers said a responsible news outlet would have made reasonable attempts to verify information that could threaten public interest before publishing it.

TOC sent an e-mail to MHA for verification only moments before the article was published, leaving scant time for the ministry to respond, said Deputy Chief Counsel Hui Choon Kuen.

The issue of how the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) interacts with journalism was canvassed yesterday when the five-judge apex court questioned both sides on their arguments.

TOC was issued a correction direction in January over a story quoting Lawyers for Liberty that alleged Singapore's prison officers were instructed to kick the heads of death-row prisoners to snap their necks when the rope breaks during hanging, among other things.

TOC then filed an appeal under Pofma to have the correction direction set aside. This was dismissed by High Court judge Belinda Ang.

Yesterday, Mr Thuraisingam said the Government should issue a correction direction only when a news outlet refuses to carry its response. He added that MHA had never replied to TOC's query.

Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash noted that the nature of journalism entails some pressure to publish in a timely fashion. To this, Mr Hui said: "As a responsible journalist, if you report on something, and not just anything but something that affects the public interest, you should make attempts to verify."

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon suggested this "imposes quite a burden on responsible journalism".

 
 
 

He posed a hypothetical scenario of a newspaper receiving information from a whistle-blower which is a matter of public interest, but cannot report on it until it is proven.

"It worries me that you're saying Pofma allows the minister to come to a journalist and say you can't report that, or if you're going to report then you have to tell the world that you say it is untrue," he said.

He added this would mean there is a whole slew of things that the media cannot bring to Singaporeans' attention until it is proven.

Mr Hui, though, voiced concern over allowing news outlets to publish any claim just by qualifying it as an allegation and indicating they had asked the Government for comments. In the case of whistle-blowing, he said, there were other ways to raise the issue, and "mass communicating" it when it could affect Singaporeans is not the only way.

To this, CJ Menon said: "I'm a tiny bit concerned, Mr Hui, that your suggestion is that Pofma was meant to protect Singaporeans from themselves, I don't think that is correct."

 
 

Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang said if a news outlet constantly harps on certain themes and puts out questionable articles, it would lose credibility. He added that if patterns are built up over time, that would also add to the context in which Pofma cases are considered.

The Court of Appeal reserved judgment on the case.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2020, with the headline 'Apex court examines issue of reporting on allegations in The Online Citizen's appeal'. Print Edition | Subscribe