SDP, TOC appeals against POFMA correction directions dismissed

SDP and TOC logos. (FILE PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)
SDP and TOC logos. (FILE PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Both the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the defunct socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) had their appeals against correction directions under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) dismissed on Monday (25 July).

In SDP's case, the Court of Appeal dismissed its application for permission to appeal against the High Court’s decision not to set aside a POFMA correction direction against the party's July 2020 press release on its Facebook on Singapore's population density in 2030.

In TOC's case, the POFMA correction direction was against three social media posts that highlighted a series of Instagram stories criticising the police for allegedly ill-treating an elderly lady in May 2021. While TOC complied with the direction, it tried to apply for the cancellation of the correction direction but was rejected, leading to the current appeal.

SDP application for permission to appeal High Court decision

SDP's press release, which was published as part of its campaign in the 2020 Singapore General Election, had used a statistic highlighted in a 2018 lecture by Dr Cheong Koon Hean, then-chief executive officer of HDB.

While Dr Cheong stated that Singapore's "living density" would increase to 13,700 persons per square kilometre by 2030, SDP quoted Dr Cheong's statistic as "population density" and erroneously extrapolated that Singapore's population would rise up to nearly 10 million by 2030.

Subsequently, a POFMA correction direction was issued by the Minister of National Development to the SDP. The opposition party appealed unsuccessfully to both the minister and the High Court to set aside the correction direction.

Following the High Court's dismissal, SDP filed an application for permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal against the High Court decision.

This application was rejected on Monday, with the Court of Appeal rejecting SDP’s position that different principles should apply when considering applications for permission to appeal against POFMA decisions, and that permission to appeal should normally be granted as a matter of course.

TOC appeal 'moot' as website is now defunct: Judge

In TOC's appeal, it argued that its POFMA correction direction was wrongly issued on several grounds.

Firstly, the subject statement did not appear in the Instagram stories nor in TOC's social media posts, but was the creation of the Minister of Home Affairs, who applied for the correction direction.

Secondly, the minister had failed to discharge his burden to show that the statements in the Instagram stories — which allegedly accused the police of taunting the elderly woman who had taken off her face mask in public — were false.

In dismissing the appeal, High Court Judge Aedit Abdullah said he was concerned that any decision would be moot, as the TOC website and social media pages had been defunct since 14 September 2021 after its broadcasting class license was cancelled over a dispute over reports on funding sources.

"If that site is no longer operated or in use, the correction direction is not displayed. Since the correction direction is not displayed, it cannot be removed, even if the appeal is successful," said Justice Aedit.

The judge also said that the subject statement need not be expressly stated as such in the subject material, but only that it could be construed or interpreted as such.

He added that the burden laid on TOC in its appeal to show that the police officers were reprimanding and taunting the elderly lady. However, further video footage from the police officers' body-worn cameras had shown that "there was no taunting or scolding. If anything, what was done was more of inquiry and advice".

"I could not see how the original poster could have in good faith concluded that there was reprimanding or taunting," Justice Aedit said in dismissing the appeal.

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