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Why The Online Citizen is being investigated for ‘criminal defamation’

Coconuts logo Coconuts 21/11/2018 Coconuts Singapore
a close up of a pen: Taken from TOC. Taken from TOC.

The Online Citizen, one of Singapore’s biggest socio-political websites since 2006, went on a hiatus yesterday after cops raided the house of its chief editor Terry Xu and seized all his electronic devices. In a Facebook post, TOC wrote that the site is involved in a case of criminal defamation, but did not furnish any further details.

The piece that got TOC into trouble with the law? An open letter about Seah Kian Peng, a Member of Parliament (MP) for Marine Parade GRC.

In response to media queries, police noted that the article titled “The take away from Seah Kian Piang’s Facebook Post” made serious allegations that the Government’s highest officers are corrupt, and that the Constitution has been tampered with. A report was lodged against TOC and the author of the article, which was attributed to someone named Willy Sum.

The article itself, published on Sept 4, has been taken down from TOC’s website, but getting into the cache archive is pretty easy. One can read the piece and see why the powers that be feel affronted by it.

The takeaway

First, some context. On Aug 30, local figures such as journalist Kirsten Han, political activist Jolovan Wham, historian PJ Thum, cartoonist Sonny Liew attended a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It was more of an open conversation than a formal meeting really, and according to Han’s account of the session, the prime minister spoke openly about human rights, LGBT equality, Malaysia-Singapore relations, and democracy.

“It was clear that while we appreciated a rare opportunity to satisfy our curiosity and meet one of Southeast Asia’s major political figures, it was far from a wholehearted endorsement of Mahathir,” she wrote.

Seah Kian Peng, an MP under the ruling People’s Action Party, blasted the Singaporeans who met up with Mahathir in a Facebook post on Sept 1. Essentially, he questioned their loyalty to Singapore and dragged the Singapore Democratic Party as well into his criticism. Seah even claimed that Thum and co. invited Mahathir to bring democracy to Singapore.

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Despite being on the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, the MP might have not gotten his facts right before his bluster. He apologised for assuming that the Singapore Democratic Party had anything to do at all with the meeting.

In response to Seah’s rant, Han set the record straight. “His post makes a number of allegations and claims that might lead people to have a very mistaken idea of what happened on Thursday and our views,” she wrote.

“Criminal defamation” wasn’t in the cards for Seah, though.

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But back to TOC. An open letter written by Willy Sum took issue with Seah’s post, slamming him for the “cheap gimmick”. But even more damning for Sum and TOC is this passage:

“The present PAP leadership severely lacks innovation, vision and the drive to take us into the next lap. We have seen multiple policy and foreign screw-ups, tampering of the Constitution, corruption at the highest echelons and apparent lack of respect from foreign powers ever since the demise of founding father Lee Kuan Yew.”

IMDA

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) admitted that it was the party that made the police report, according to The New Paper. IMDA asserted that the TOC article had made serious allegations that undermine the public’s confidence in the government’s integrity.

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