SINGAPORE: The Court of Appeal on Monday (Jan 16) ruled in a rare split decision that the Government cannot invoke an anti-harassment law that allows people to stop the publication of false statements against them.
The case hinged on the legal question of whether the Government can be considered a person under Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act. The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) had sought to invoke the law to get socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) to take down statements made by inventor Dr Ting Choon Meng about a patent rights dispute.
The court ruled 2-1, with Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang agreeing that the provision applied only to human beings and not entities.
The sole dissenting judge was Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, who found that Section 15 did not distinguish between natural and non-natural people, and therefore applied to the benefit of both human beings as well corporations and the Government.
TEXT AND CONTEXT
In delivering their written judgement, Judges Chao and Phang agreed that the provision applied only to human beings and not entities.
They acknowledged that, read on its own, Section 15 would appear to be broad enough to encompass entities such as the Government.
However, they pointed to the context in which the law was enacted. Drawing attention to the "original Parliamentary intention" of the Act, the judges cited Law Minister K Shanmugam's speech during the second reading of the Bill. "It is clear that the minister’s focus was solely on human beings (as opposed to other entities)," they said.
However, CJ Menon argued that Section 15 refers to falsehoods being made about "any person".
He referred to the Interpretation Act, which defines the term "person" to include any company or body of people. "It does not seem to have been contentious that this could notionally include the Government," he noted.
CJ Menon also cited Parliamentary debates to confirm his interpretation. When asked specifically by a Member of Parliament whether the term "person" included corporations, the Law Minister replied that the definition of "person" in the Interpretation Act indeed applied to the Act, the Chief Justice said.
He added that Section 15 was enacted to deal with the mischief of false statements. "I can see no reason, based on my understanding of the purpose and object of the provision, to hold that … (Section 15) should be confined in its application to natural persons," he said.
MINDEF "ANYTHING BUT A HELPLESS VICTIM": COURT
However, Judges Phang and Chao added that even if they were to accept that the provision applied to entities like MINDEF, they would not have found it just or equitable to grant a Section 15 order.
"MINDEF was anything but a helpless victim," they wrote. "It is a Government agency possessed of significant resources and access to media channels." MINDEF was able to put across its side of the story through traditional media as well as online, on its Facebook page, the judges said, adding that TOC had, in fact, published MINDEF’s statement in full and provided a link to it from the offending article.
"Given all this, it is difficult to see what discernible impact the allegations and The Online Citizen’s publication of the allegations could have had on MINDEF’s reputation or public image."
However, CJ Menon said that Dr Ting’s false statement was a serious one, alleging that MINDEF had behaved dishonestly, both in general and to the court. He added that the fact that TOC had published MINDEF's account was insufficient to correct his false statement. In these circumstances, the Chief Justice wrote that he considered it "just and equitable" to order for a remedy under Section 15.