Sociopolitical website TR Emeritus (TRE) yesterday apologised in a Facebook post for its online report that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's medical expenses are being paid by taxpayers, a claim the Government called "a blatant lie".
Later, TRE said in another Facebook post that it never intended to misrepresent facts, and was "disappointed" it had been accused of misleading the public.
In extending its apology, TRE admitted it did not check the "underlying facts" when it published an article on Monday that said the cost to taxpayers of Mr Heng's medical bills to date would be almost $500,000. "We therefore extend our apologies for this matter," it said.
But TRE said its terms of service give it the right to republish any material submitted to the website in any format. The content producers are "solely responsible for any liability arising from the publication of (their) messages", it added.
Law don Eugene Tan pointed out that TRE cannot absolve itself from responsibility because in a defamation suit, publishers are just as liable as content producers. "If falsehoods are repeated often enough, individuals or entities like the Government may be able to seek legal recourse through the Protection from Harassment Act," he said.
TR Emeritus (TRE) has once again sought to mislead the public by publishing a vicious claim that a Cabinet minister is 'fully entitled to free A-class healthcare in government and restructured hospitals'... A vicious lie is not an 'alternative angle'. Choosing to run an article that contained glaring misinformation that could have been easily searched and verified online is irresponsible.
THE GOVERNMENT on the article that said Mr Heng's medical bills were funded by taxpayers.
As a volunteer-managed platform, we have republished the piece - after edits for clarity - without checking the underlying facts. We therefore extend our apologies for this matter.
TRE's first statement apologising for the inaccuracies.
NO INTENTION TO MISREPRESENT FACTS
We wish to place on record that it was never our intention to misrepresent the facts... We have written to the PSD (Public Service Division) in view of this information, as well as to express our disappointment that they have accused us of misleading the public.
TRE's second statement expressing disappointment at being called out.
It is not their fault (if they) publish something untrue, but the writer's. Well done, well done. Now, who will believe what is on their platform?
FACEBOOK USER EDWARD YEO on TRE's disclaimer that it was merely publishing a reader's letter.
TAKE OWNERSHIP OF CONTENT
TRE's apology is an empty statement by a faceless, nameless entity. And it will remain so, unless TRE takes steps to ensure that such an incident does not recur in future. For starters, TRE's administrators should come out from behind their veil of anonymity and take proper ownership of the website and its contents... Without these basic first steps, any statements by TRE will continue to ring hollow.
MINISTER OF STATE CHEE HONG TAT on TRE's lack of accountability.
TRE, in a Facebook post two hours later, said it "was never our intention to misrepresent the facts".
It said it had believed the writer's facts were true because there was a past scheme in which the state fully covered civil servants who fell ill or were injured during working hours.
As Mr Heng was at a Cabinet meeting when he collapsed, it was "natural to assume" the state would cover his medical expenses, it added.
The 54-year-old minister had a stroke at a May 12 Cabinet meeting. Doctors of Tan Tock Seng Hospital successfully closed a ruptured aneurysm that caused bleeding in his brain. He remains in intensive care.
The TRE article estimated that Mr Heng's daily room, board, medical services and operation would cost a total of at least $475,000.
It asked if the average Singaporean would have been able to afford it, adding: "Therefore, no need to give him well wishes."
The Government, which responded on Facebook in the early hours of yesterday morning to TRE's original post, said TRE "has once again sought to mislead the public".
It noted that ministers are on the same medical benefits scheme as most civil servants. Officers on the Medisave-cum-Subsidised Outpatient scheme get a 2 per cent Central Provident Fund contribution to their Medisave accounts capped at $2,380 a year, on top of their statutory Medisave contributions.
This can be used to buy MediShield Life or other portable Medisave-approved insurance plan to cover their hospital stay. "Ministers receive no extra benefits for themselves or their spouses/children. All ministers and other political office- holders pay tax," the statement said, adding that Mr Heng's hospitalisation "is most certainly not borne by taxpayers' monies".
TRE has updated the article to include the Government's statement and removed its Facebook post promoting the article. It said later on Facebook it has written to the Public Service Division "in view of this information, as well as to express our disappointment that they have accused us of misleading the public".
Media Literacy Council chairman Tan Cheng Han said it was "a pity" the apology did not appear to be an unqualified one. "Where a publisher exercises editorial discretion to republish a post, the publisher must take full responsibility for its contents. It cannot rely on its terms of reference to justify its act."
Minister of State for Health and Communications and Information Chee Hong Tat, in a strongly worded Facebook post last night, said TRE was irresponsible in publishing "false and misleading information". It then justified its actions by claiming to be a "volunteer-managed platform" that republishes content that it edits for clarity but does not fact-check.
"False information that is edited for clarity remains false," he said.
He called on TRE's administrators to "come out from behind their veil of anonymity" and take ownership of its contents. Also, "the use of authors' real names... will ensure that authors stand by their content".
"Without these basic first steps, any statements by TRE will continue to ring hollow," said Mr Chee.
TRE managing editor Joseph Tan Kheng Liang said a statement would come later.