AGC says SDP mischaracterised its arguments in Pofma hearing

SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan (left) and vice-chairman John Tan (right) leaving the Supreme Court on Thursday.
SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan (left) and vice-chairman John Tan (right) leaving the Supreme Court on Thursday.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) has asked the High Court for a further hearing in the first court challenge against corrections issued under the fake news law, to deal with what it called deliberate mischaracterisations of its arguments by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

The AGC is accusing the SDP of making misleading statements about court proceedings that took place last week, even as the court was considering whether the SDP had made misleading statements on a separate matter.

The two-day hearing of SDP's appeal, against correction directions it was ordered last month to post alongside two of its Facebook posts and an article on its website, concluded last Friday.

The corrections were issued under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma). Judgment was reserved for a later date.

In a letter to the High Court yesterday, the AGC took issue with two articles about the court proceedings posted on the SDP website last week.

The first, posted after the first day of the hearing on Thursday, suggests that the AGC had made the case that the minister's interpretation of a statement is "determinative" of the matter, said the AGC, adding that it had made clear that this was not the Attorney-General's (A-G) case.

"It is the A-G's case that while the minister's interpretation is important as the minister must first form a bona fide view as to what a reasonable interpretation of the subject statement is to decide whether to take action under Pofma, it is the court (and not the minister) which ultimately decides what the subject statement means."

The SDP article was "calculated to embarrass the minister and falsely portray Pofma in a negative light", the AGC said, adding that it was posted before the AGC had the opportunity to make its arguments in court.

Justice Ang Cheng Hock told the SDP on the second day of the hearing on Friday that it should ensure any report or comment made about the ongoing proceedings is accurate and correct, the AGC said in its letter.

But in a second article posted on Saturday, the SDP "repeated the same false and dishonest narrative", the AGC added.

In doing so, the SDP cited a Straits Times article quoting Deputy A-G Hri Kumar Nair, but omitted "critical parts" of what Mr Nair had told reporters after the hearing, the AGC added.

Given the judge's reminder, the SDP cannot say its error was innocent, or even negligent, the AGC said. It added that the manner in which it "cherry picks the ST article and materially misrepresents the A-G's arguments" is the same modus operandi it employed when it published an article in June last year that later attracted one of the Pofma corrections.

"The SDP's conduct is completely unacceptable," said the AGC.

"It has acted in blatant defiance of His Honour's reminder that any report or comment by the SDP in relation to the ongoing proceedings should be accurate and correct, and its conduct risks undermining public confidence in the administration of justice."

The AGC also said in its letter to the court: "In view of the severity of the SDP's misconduct and its recalcitrance, we seek leave for a hearing before His Honour. We would be grateful if this letter and its accompanying enclosures are placed before His Honour as soon as possible."

In its response, the SDP denied misrepresenting what Mr Nair had said, pointing again to the same quote in the ST article that the AGC had accused the party of citing out of context. It added: "The SDP does not believe that this is end of the matter under the Act... The fact that we've taken the matter to court makes clear our stand that the Government does not have a final say in the matter."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2020, with the headline 'AGC says SDP mischaracterised its arguments in Pofma hearing'. Subscribe