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The Online Citizen fails in appeal against POFMA order over social media posts alleging police bullying

The Online Citizen fails in appeal against POFMA order over social media posts alleging police bullying

The police said social media posts circulating online alleging police officers bullying an elderly woman who was not wearing a mask were not true. (Screengrabs: Instagram/Nicholas Zayden Tan)

SINGAPORE: A High Court judge on Monday (Jul 25) dismissed The Online Citizen's (TOC) appeal against a correction direction issued to it under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) last year.

The correction direction was issued after TOC shared a user's Instagram story that alleged police ill-treatment of an elderly woman who was not wearing a mask. The alternative news provider republished the social media post on May 18, 2021, on its Facebook, YouTube and Instagram accounts.

In response to the accusations then, the police said the allegations of bullying are not true, and that officers attended to the woman in Yishun to help her find her way home.

The 85-year-old woman, who was believed to have dementia, appeared lost when she was seen without a mask. Officers bought her food and she was eventually handed over to her domestic worker, said the police.

The POFMA correction direction issued to TOC noted that the statement saying that "police reprimanded and taunted the elderly woman ... for not wearing a mask" is false. 

TOC, along with the Singapore Uncensored website and the user who originally posted the Instagram story, were required to post a correction notice.

In Monday's judgment, Justice Aedit Abdullah said: "The appeal fails as the outcome of the appeal is moot, given that TOC is unable to operate its websites and social media accounts."

TOC's class licence was cancelled as of Oct 15, 2021, after it repeatedly refused to declare its funding sources, according to the Infocomm Media Development Authority at the time.

As a result, TOC can no longer use its website and social media accounts by the time its appeal against the POFMA order was heard.

TOC's lawyer Lim Tean argued that his client wished to pursue the appeal as a matter of principle, but Justice Aedit found that "the court should not be asked for orders that are ultimately futile or moot".

Since TOC's website and social media accounts are no longer in operation, the correction direction is no longer displayed and could not be removed even if the appeal was successful, said the judge.

"While it is true that the fact that the correction direction was issued would always remain, I could not see that that fact would engage any substantive interest of TOC.

"No harm or injury arose from the issuing of the correction direction alone," he added.


The judge also considered and rejected TOC's substantive arguments against the POFMA order, finding that its posts did contain an untrue statement of fact.

TOC argued that the statement that police reprimanded and taunted an elderly woman for not wearing a mask was true.

It relied on the fact that the police did not dispute that there were four officers at the scene and that one officer was speaking loudly at the elderly woman, taking issue with her not wearing a mask.

TOC also argued that its version of events was supported by an interview the elderly woman gave to Ms Pak Geok Choo, a friend of TOC's former chief editor Terry Xu.

After viewing body-worn camera footage from one police officer and additional videos, Justice Aedit said he accepts the Attorney-General's argument that the police did not reprimand or taunt the elderly lady.

"If anything, what was done was more of inquiry and advice. I note that from the video evidence, what is apparent is that at least two of the officers present were initially under the impression that the lady had lost her way.

"What was expressed was of concern with the aim of rendering assistance, by getting the elderly lady to put on her mask," said the judge.

Justice Aedit said that the officer who was mainly dealing with the elderly woman sat next to her to talk to her and eventually helped her put on a mask.

He continued: "While the officers were not soothing, or obsequious, or mollifying, it would be a very long stretch to characterise their behaviour as scolding in any way, and certainly not reprimanding or taunting.

"At the very most, they were perhaps paternalistic or nagging, but there was no element of sharpness, insult, scorn, disrespect, or cruelty, let alone any hint of an intention to anger or cause pain or jeer. There was also no sarcasm present.

"In fact, I could not see how the original poster (of the Instagram story) could have in good faith concluded that there was reprimanding or taunting."

The judge also said that Ms Pak's interview with the elderly woman, which TOC introduced as evidence, did not assist the court in making a decision as the assessment of what happened was made "objectively".

While the police officers' intentions and how the elderly woman felt she was treated were of some relevance, they would not be determinative, said the judge.

Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam previously also rejected TOC's application to cancel the correction direction against it.

Source: CNA/dv(gs)


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