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TOC argues against Pofma order over police bullying allegations in court

Yahoo News logo Yahoo News 1/12/2021 Wan Ting Koh

SINGAPORE — The Online Citizen (TOC) argued for a correction direction that arose from several online posts alleging police “bullying” of an elderly woman to be set aside in the High Court on Wednesday (1 December).

Making its arguments during at an in-chambers hearing before Justice Audit Abdullah, the now-defunct sociopolitical site said that the order by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam Shanmugam was wrong as the statement within the correction direction did not appear in TOC’s 18 May posts.

TOC, who is represented by lawyer Lim Tean, further argued that its post was based on an Instagram story by user @nichology, which contained opinions rather than statement of fact, and as such, did not come under the purview of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).

Lim also argued that Shanmugam had not discharged the burden of proof to show that the statements by @nichology were false, and that the minister had directed that TOC post a correction notice on a separate Facebook post rather than in the posts that were the basis of the correction direction.

TOC published three posts on its Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pages on 18 May. Each post contained a video of an Instagram story by user @nichology.

The story claimed that four police officers had surrounded a woman who took off her mask because she was feeling breathless, and had continued reprimanding her off even after she wore a mask. It also included a video of the officers interacting with the elderly woman.

On 19 May, the police refuted the allegations as untrue and stated that officers had been helping the 85-year-old woman with dementia to find her way home as she appeared lost. The officers were also concerned that she was hungry and bought her food. TOC updated its post to include the police's clarification.

Body-worn camera footage of a police officer buying the woman a packet of food was later released.

On 21 May, Shanmugam instructed the Pofma Office to issue a direction to TOC, requiring it to post a correction notice in a new post on its Facebook page. The new post was supposed to state that an earlier post on its Facebook page contained a false statement of fact, and carry a link to a Factually article that set out the correct facts.

The same direction was issued to @nichology and Singapore Uncensored, both of which reportedly complied with the order.

TOC applied to MHA to have the Pofma order cancelled but this was rejected in 28 May.

TOC’s arguments centred around how @nichology's post was an opinion rather than a statement of fact as the user was expressing his opinion of how the police treated the woman. He had used the words, “Here’s my point of view”, “Based on what I can see” and “to make a judgement based on”.

The site also argued that it was unheard of for a correction direction to stipulate that a correction notice be posted as a new post, as the norm is to have a correction notice appear on top of an original post being subjected to a Pofma order.

Yahoo News Singapore has reached out to the Attorney-General's Chambers for its arguments in the case.

According to Lim, Justice Abdullah will deliver his judgment on the case on 15 December.

TOC, helmed by chief editor Terry Xu, was taken offline on 16 September after the Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA) suspended its class licence to run its website and social media. This was over TOC's repeated failure to comply with obligations to declare sources of funding. TOC is challenging IMDA's suspension in court.

The website and Xu have also been in and out of court over legal tussles involving defamation and previous Pofma orders.

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