Website faces legal action after refusing to remove articles

Sociopolitical website The Independent has refused demands from NTUC Foodfare to remove two articles and two Facebook posts, which include 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 to the owner of The Independent, local company 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 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 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 got 800 reactions and 119 comments by 3.55pm on Tuesday, NTUC Foodfare's lawyers said the words used were defamatory.

This was because these words suggested NTUC Foodfare 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 stallholders.

The second article, also published on Monday, 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, read together with the first or on its own, 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.

In its articles, The Independent had quoted the daughters of both hawkers as its sources. However, NTUC Foodfare said on Tuesday that the family of the deceased hawker had not contacted any online media outlet.

NTUC Foodfare also said that it had never received any request or appeal from the owner of the stall in question to shorten operating hours.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2018, with the headline 'Website faces legal action after refusing to remove articles'. Print Edition | Subscribe