The Independent faces legal action after refusing to remove NTUC Foodfare articles

A Foodfare coffee shop in Jurong West on Feb 24, 2016. PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO

SINGAPORE - Sociopolitical website The Independent has refused demands from NTUC Foodfare to remove two articles and two Facebook posts, which includes claims that a hawker died from "overwork", and now faces the prospect of being sued for defamation.

Lawyers for NTUC Foodfare, a social enterprise, had sent a letter on Tuesday (Nov 20) to The Independent owner Protegesoft, to remove the articles by 3pm the next day and publish an apology, or else face legal action.

The Independent failed to do so by the deadline, and instead posted on its website NTUC Foodfare's demand letter and a note by the site's publisher Kumaran Pillai saying it needed more time to "investigate the contentions raised". It also said that it had relevant facts to justify its articles.

Mr Kumaran, who is described as a "serial entrepreneur" by The Independent, added: "For now, (The Independent) will not take down its articles until and unless our stories are proven to be utterly false, fabricated and baseless."

NTUC Foodfare is being represented by law firm David Lim & Partners.

According to the demand letter, The Independent had on Monday (Nov 19) published on its website an article titled "Elderly hawker allegedly passed away after working 18-hour days to avoid hefty fine when NTUC Foodfare rejected appeal to shorten operating hours".

The same day, the site posted the article on its Facebook page, and added: "Besides rejecting his appeals to shorten the operating hours, NTUC Foodfare apparently warned the elderly hawker that he would have to pay a hefty $500 penalty for each day he closes.

"The reader said that the elderly hawker decided to run the stall himself and worked from 5am-11pm daily to avoid the penalties. His efforts, however, cost him his life."

Highlighting how the article on Facebook had more than 4,500 shares, and attracted 800 reactions and 119 comments by 3.55pm on Tuesday, NTUC Foodfare's lawyers said the words used were defamatory as it suggested that it had, among other things, bullied an elderly stall operator working at Changi Airport's Terminal 4 foodcourt, and has made a lot of money by preying on old and illiterate small stall holders.

The second article, also published on Nov 19, was titled "NTUC Foodfare slaps $3,500 fine on elderly and injured tenant who was unable to operate for a few days".

It was also posted on Facebook, and had nearly 2,600 shares, 637 reactions and 155 comments by around 4pm the next day.

NTUC Foodfare's lawyers said that the article gave the impression that it had, among other things, rejected the multiple applications by the stall operator to shorten opening hours and caused the death of the elderly hawker.

The four publications, the letter of demand added, caused NTUC Foodfare to be "disparaged and injured in its character and reputation" and suffer hurt, distress and embarrassment. The letter of demand also required The Independent to preserve all information and documents in relation to all articles or posts that mention NTUC Foodfare on its website and Facebook page this month.

In its articles, The Independent had quoted the daughters of both hawkers as its sources. But NTUC Foodfare said on Tuesday that the family of the deceased hawker had not contacted any online media outlet. It also said that it had never received any request or appeal from the owner of the stalls in question to shorten operating hours.

Even as Mr Kumaran made it clear that The Independent was not ready to take down the articles yet, he urged NTUC Foodfare to answer questions on how many hours its hawkers have to work, the penalties they face and if the elderly hawker who died had ever communicated for shorter operating hours.

He added: "We will endeavour to publish all matters concerning this case including your response or lack thereof in our (The Independent) website so that the public can see for themselves as to how fair and reasonable your client has been with its hawkers at T4, Changi Airport."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.