AGC says SDP articles misrepresented its arguments in POFMA case, seeks new hearing

AGC says SDP articles misrepresented its arguments in POFMA case, seeks new hearing

Chee Soon Juan POFMA case Supreme Court Jan 17, 2020
Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan at the Supreme Court for a hearing on SDP's POFMA challenge on Jan 17, 2020.

SINGAPORE: An opposition party that went to court over allegedly false statements it made in articles on local employment is now accused of making further misrepresentative statements while the hearings for the first matter are ongoing.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has published false statements mischaracterising the Attorney-General's Chambers' (AGC's) arguments in the first case to be heard under the online falsehoods law, AGC charged in a letter to the Supreme Court on Monday (Jan 20).

The AGC is seeking a hearing before the judge in light of the new developments. However, SDP has denied these allegations.

According to the AGC's letter to the court, SDP published two articles last week while proceedings were ongoing in its appeal against correction directions under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).

Each article purportedly stated that the Manpower Minister's interpretation of the allegedly false statements in question determine whether they are true or false, despite AGC stating that this was not its case.

The hearings were held in chambers on Thursday and Friday, the norm for such types of hearings, after SDP failed in its bid to have the case heard in open court.

Chamber hearings are private in nature, and members of the public or media are not allowed in. However, the public can apply to get access to information relayed in chambers after the hearings, subject to approval.

Both SDP and the AGC have presented their arguments for the opposition party's POFMA challenge, with the judge reserving his verdict, which will be released at a later date.

READ: SDP fails in bid to have POFMA-linked case against Manpower Minister heard in open court

Following the first hearing, the SDP on Thursday published an article on its website titled "Dr Chee: It would be ludicrous for the MOM to say that 'in the Minister's view' the earth is round". 

The AGC said the article suggests that it is the AGC's case that the minister's interpretation of the subject statement determines the matter. However, the AGC, led by Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair, has made it clear that this is not its case.

"It is the AG's case that while the minister's interpretation is important as the Minister must first form a bona fide view as to what a reasonable interpretation of the subject statement is in order to decide whether to take action under POFMA, it is the court (and not the minister) which ultimately decides what the subject statement means," wrote Senior Counsel Nair along with Deputy Public Prosecutors Fu Qijing and Amanda Sum.

The article was also "calculated to embarrass the minister and falsely portray POFMA in a negative light, and was made even before the AG had the opportunity to make its arguments", said AGC in its letter to the court.

The AGC flagged the first article to the judge on the second day of the hearings, when it was granted its turn to make arguments. 

READ: SDP presented no direct data to support statement, says AGC as judge reserves verdict

While Justice Ang Cheng Hock observed that parties were entitled to inform the public of the arguments they had made, he "impressed upon" SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan and the other SDP representatives that the party should ensure that any report or comment it made on the ongoing proceedings should be accurate and correct, said AGC.

Despite the reminder from the judge, SDP published another article on its website on Jan 18, titled "Whether a statement is true or false cannot be 'based on the minister's interpretation'", said the AGC.

In this article, it purportedly repeated that the minister's interpretation of the statement determines whether the said statement is true or false.

"This time, however, the SDP aggravated the falsity by deliberately mischaracterising the AG's arguments," alleged Senior Counsel Nair and his colleagues.

The party cited a quote by SC Nair reported in the Straits Times (ST) and asserted: "Whether a statement is true or false can be determined objectively and without question. It cannot be 'based on the minister’s interpretation.'"

READ: SDP argues for MOM to release data on local employment to prove the party's statements are false

However it omitted "critical parts" of what Mr Nair said, including paragraphs clarifying that the courts will "have the final word" on the matter, AGC said.

"The SDP described the government’s argument as 'shocking'. It was however the SDP which had acted shockingly," read the AGC's letter to the judge.

"The SDP blatantly cherry-picked from the ST Article, and omitted critical parts of what it reported Deputy AG Nair to have said."

SC Nair compared this alleged cherry-picking to SDP's modus operandi in its original offending publications - when it published an article titled “SDP population policy: Hire S’poreans first, retrench S’poreans last” on local PMET retrenchments.

In response, SDP said on Monday night that it has not misrepresented Mr Nair. 

"It is the Government’s position that 'the minister who initiates a POFMA direction will look at the article or statement in question and determine what he believes to be its meaning'. This is a direct quote from the ST report," it said in a letter to the Supreme Court signed by party leaders Chee Soon Juan, Paul Tambyah and John Tan.

The response added that the SDP does not believe that this is the end of the matter under the Act, and that the party did not at any time say that it was.

"Nor did we say in our article of 18 January that this was the AG's position. We knew that POFMA had a provision for us to take the matter to court. This means that we knew that the court would have the final say, that is, the judge will make the final determination on the government’s stand," the party said.

"The fact that we’ve taken the matter to court makes clear our stand that the government does not have a final say in the matter," read the reply.

In response to CNA’s queries, the Supreme Court confirmed receipt of AGC’s letter. 

Source: CNA/ll(hm)