SINGAPORE - The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) is looking into a doctored newspaper report on Facebook that claimed a lawyer from the People's Action Party (PAP) had saved the accused in the City Harvest case from harsher sentences.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam revealed this in Parliament on Monday (Feb 5) in response to a question by Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who had asked for the Government's response to comments that the City Harvest case had been handled by a lawyer who is a PAP MP, referring to Mr Edwin Tong (Marine Parade GRC).
Mr Shanmugam stressed that the authorities take a serious view of those who scandalise the court and warned against "a mob mentality" that causes lawyers to be "hounded online".
He cited the example of the the manipulated image of a Chinese newspaper report that was put on a Facebook group and and said that this will be dealt with in accordance with the law.
The original headline on the front page of Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao said an outdated law saved the accused from harsher penalties, but the amended headline claimed that a PAP lawyer had saved the accused from heavier sentences, making it look as if a mass circulation paper had written it.
The Court of Appeal had last Thursday upheld a ruling made by the High Court in April last year that Section 409 of the Penal Code, which provides for heavier punishments for certain classes of people who commit criminal breach of trust, cannot be applied to City Harvest founder Kong Hee and five others who misused millions of church funds.
The public Facebook group where the fake headline appeared has a Chinese name translating to "policy discussion forum", and it has over 4,500 members.
When contacted by The Straits Times, an administrator of the group said it had nothing to do with the post and declined further comment.
Responses to the post with the false heading include a photograph of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with a caption suggesting that the judiciary has to "give face" to lawyers who are PAP MPs.
Mr Shanmugam said the doctored headline is part of a mob mentality to hound lawyers and intimidate them into not acting for cases that others disapprove of.
Accused persons have the right to be defended by a lawyer, he said, and "lawyers should not be made to feel that they'll be hounded online if they take up cases".
Mr Shanmugam said:"AGC takes a view that the suggestion from the fake title is that the PAP MP was responsible for an unfair, unjust outcome and the courts had let off the defendants lightly because of him."
He added that AGC considers this a case of contempt, by scandalising the courts.
Mr Shanmugam warned: "This sort of attack,based on deliberate faking, is quite unacceptable. I cannot see how any reasonable person will justify such faking as a legitimate expression of free speech."
He added: "I have asked the police to take a serious view of those who scandalise the court."
Citing his personal experience, Mr Shanmugam said as a practising lawyer, he had acted both for and against the three prime ministers of Singapore.
While being a PAP MP, he had represented the International Herald Tribune (IHT) in court, in 1995.
The Tribune had faced a libel suit by Singapore's top three political leaders - Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Mr Shanmugam said he did not see the need to clear his decision to take on the case with the PAP or anyone connected to the Government, and that he was simply doing his "professional duty".
"The decision by the IHT despite the situation to instruct me was, and I quote, 'the highest tribute to the integrity of the counsel' and, quote, 'possibly reflected also on the integrity of the Government'," he added.
Mr Shanmugam stressed: "The courts should not be pressured by public opinion. If we do nothing it will get much worse and become unsolvable."