SINGAPORE: The High Court has dismissed appeals by The Inquiry Pte Ltd (TIPL), the operator of the online publication Jom, against two correction directions (CDs) it received in July under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
The directions were issued after Jom released a “weekly digest” concerning the rental of bungalows on Ridout Road rented by two Cabinet ministers.
In response, the Second Minister for Law, Edwin Tong, and Minister for Communications and Information, Josephine Teo, called for the corrections under POFMA.
While Jom adhered to the directives by placing correction notices on its website and Facebook page, its Editor-in-chief, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, had stated his intentions to contest them.
TIPL was represented by lawyers Jordan Tan and Victor Leong from Audent Chambers, as well as Keith Han and Angela Phoon from Oon & Bazul, while the Attorney-General’s team comprised Deputy Chief Counsel Kristy Tan, Senior State Counsel Jeyendran Jeyapal, Deputy Senior State Counsel Tan Zhongshan, and State Counsel Allen Lye.
In the judgment delivered on Wednesday (6 Sep), High Court Judge Valerie Thean confirmed that Jom’s article contained three factually incorrect statements.
Among these was a claim that the Singapore Land Authority spent over S$1 million (US$0.76 million) on bungalow renovations because of the anticipated tenancy of the ministers.
The POFMA directives revolved around two segments of the July 7th digest titled “No corruption by the Rajahs of Ridout, but many questions unanswered” and “Did Instagram accede to a censorship request by the Rajah?”
The articles followed revelations that Ministers K Shanmugam and Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan were tenants at the Ridout Road bungalows, prompting queries from opposition figures regarding potential below-market-rate rents.
Reviews initiated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cleared the ministers of any illicit activities or misconduct.
Key Points from the Judge’s Ruling:
The first controversial statement involved Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean’s reply concerning potential conflicts of interest and the conduct code for ministers. The article allegedly omitted vital context regarding Minister Shanmugam’s recusal, negating any actual or potential conflict.
The second contested statement revolved around the SLA’s alleged excessive expenditure on bungalow renovations due to the ministers’ tenancy.
Lastly, Jom’s article hinted at government involvement in Instagram’s geo-blocking of a post by Charles Yeo, ex-chairman of the Reform Party.
The publication allegedly drew speculative connections between Instagram’s parent company, Meta, and authoritarian governments, even though it acknowledged no evidence of Meta’s association with Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party.
Judge Thean’s decisions leaned on a five-step framework from a landmark POFMA judgment involving The Online Citizen (TOC) Pte Ltd in 2021.
While TIPL conceded during the appeal that the statements were false, it maintained that there was no intent behind them and refuted the ministers’ claims on the specifics of their content.
TIPL situated its arguments strictly within the second step of the TOC framework, which examines the alignment of the minister’s interpretation with the article’s intended meaning and how it would be perceived by a potential Singaporean audience.
While Jom argued that the ministers should strictly adhere to their subject statements and contended that no reasonable reader would derive the implied meanings, Judge Thean disagreed.
On the facts, TIPL also argues that the addenda makes it very clear that all three subject statements do not pass muster under the second step of the TOC framework and so both CDs ought to be set aside.
Judge Thean mentioned that Jom’s post-direction article addenda, clarifying its intent, held no weight in deciding if the correction directions should be revoked.
“The addenda do nothing to neutralise the slant of the subject material, where the subject statement is not literally made but set out as a logical conclusion for the reader. A reasonable reader, reading the subject material together with only the denials, would be left none the wiser but bemused, rather, by the anomaly between the import of the subject material and its accompanying addenda. Hence the AG’s contention that the addenda reflect sardonic humour. Whatever the case, it is the presence of the Correction Notice that supplies the answer to the logical query that has arisen.” wrote Justice Thean in her ruling.
The judge has directed further submissions on costs if the two parties are unable to agree. Each should write in to the court within ten days of the ruling on 6 September.