AGC presents argument against SDP's fake news law challenge; High Court reserves judgment

A photo taken on Jan 16, 2020, shows Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan (left) and vice-chairman John Tan leaving the Supreme Court. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - The fake news law does cover matters of interpretation, said Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair as he outlined the Government's argument against the challenge brought forth by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Both sides wrapped up their arguments on Friday (Jan 17), and the High Court reserved judgment in the first court appeal against a correction direction under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).

The SDP has until next Wednesday (Jan 22) to file written responses to the submissions presented by the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), if it wishes to do so.

The AGC is representing the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which issued correction directions against two Facebook posts by the party and an article on the SDP website last month.

Mr Nair told reporters after day two of the hearing on Friday (Jan 17) that Pofma covers both express statements and implied statements.

It also covers statements that are false or misleading, whether in whole or in part, when read on their own or in the context in which they appear, he added.

On Thursday, the SDP argued that the MOM had exercised Pofma inappropriately as the law should not have be used to dispute the party's interpretation of statistics.

Said Mr Nair on Friday: "The SDP had said in chambers that the meaning of the article or the statement is up to the minister, who can decide whatever the meaning is. That's not correct."

He said the minister who initiates a Pofma direction will look at the article or statement in question and determine what she believes to be its meaning. A direction can then be issued based on the minister's interpretation.

But the courts will have the final word on the matter if the target of the direction makes a High Court appeal, as the SDP has done.

Mr Nair said the appeal will be decided based on how the judge believes a reasonable member of the public would understand the statements in question.

For example, the article on the SDP website which drew a correction claimed a rising proportion of Singaporean professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) is being laid off.

In issuing the correction on Dec 14, the ministry said the article contained falsehoods, noting, among other things, that there has been no rising trend of local PMET retrenchment.

The MOM had cited data from its Labour Market Survey to show the number of retrenched local PMETs had fallen between 2015 and 2018.

Responding, the SDP also cited the same survey but included data from 2010 onwards to argue that there is a longer-term upward trend.

Mr Nair on Friday addressed the SDP's argument that the MOM had chosen the time period of 2015 to 2018 arbitrarily.

He said a reasonable reader would understand the SDP's statement to mean that the increase in retrenched Singaporean PMETs is a current or recent situation.

"An ordinary Singaporean reading this is not going to think about the position back in 2010," said Mr Nair.

"Insofar as the allegation is that PMET retrenchments are increasing, the data shows that is not the position today."

SDP chairman Paul Tambyah, who was in court with party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan and vice-chairman John Tan, said the party will get legal advice on the matter over the weekend before filing a written response.

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