In a rare split decision, the Court of Appeal ruled, 2-1, that the Government cannot invoke an anti-harassment law that allows persons to stop the publication of false statements against them.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon was the sole dissenting judge, in a case that hinged on the narrow legal question of whether the Government could be considered a “person” under Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act.
Under the provision, a person who is a victim of a false statement can seek relief by asking the court to order that the statement not be published unless it drew attention to the truth.
In a written judgment released yesterday, Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang ruled that the law applied only to human beings.
However, Chief Justice Menon disagreed. He concluded that the Government does fall within the scope of “person” under the law and is able to apply under the provision for relief.
The decision arose in a case in which the Attorney-General had invoked the law against five individuals who ran socio-political site The Online Citizen (TOC) as well as Dr Ting Choon Meng, co-founder of medical device firm MobileStats Technologies.
MobileStats had sued the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) in 2011 for infringing its patent for a mobile emergency medical station. The suit was eventually dropped.
In January 2015, TOC published an interview with Dr Ting, in which he made various allegations against Mindef.
The ministry responded on its Facebook page, refuting his allegations that it had knowingly infringed his patent and that it had dragged out court proceedings to wear him down financially.
TOC published Mindef’s statement in full and provided a link to it from the offending article.
The next month, the A-G sought a court order that the allegations cannot be published without a notification that they were false and that Mindef’s statement gave the truth.
In May 2015, a district judge found Dr Ting’s statements to be false and granted the A-G’s ap- plication.
TOC, represented by Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, and Dr Ting, represented by Mr Choo Zheng Xi, appealed to the High Court, arguing that Mindef cannot apply for such an order as the Government is not a “person” under the provision.
Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon agreed, ruling that only human beings are entitled to apply for such court orders.
The A-G then appealed to the Court of Appeal, Singapore’s highest court, arguing that there was no clear parliamentary intent to exclude the Government from the protection of the Act.
The A-G argued that the objective of the provision was to deal with false statements and not merely harassment, so the Government and corporate entities have the right to invoke the law.
Delivering the court’s majority decision, Justice Phang referred to parliamentary debates in which Law Minister K. Shanmugam talked about giving people a “lower tier” remedy against falsehoods.
Justice Phang said it was clear that the minister’s focus was solely on human beings, pointing to the many references to “victims” and “harassment” in his speech.
No references were made with regard to the rights of other entities, he noted.
Justice Phang added that even if the majority accepted that the law applies to Mindef, they did not think it was “just and equitable” to grant an order against TOC and Dr Ting.
He noted that TOC had provided a balanced view.
“Additionally, Mindef was anything but a helpless victim. It is a government agency possessed of significant resources and access to media channels.”
Through his lawyer Mr Choo, Dr Ting said he was glad that this episode was concluded.
Mr Thuraisingam said his clients are “happy that the position they have taken has been vindicated by the High Court and the majority of the Court of Appeal”.