Singapore

SDP's appeal against Pofma dismissed by court

MOM stats show party's statements on PMET employment were false: Judge

The High Court has dismissed the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP's) appeal to reverse the correction order against it under the fake news law, in a case that is set to define the way in which the court will look at such challenges.

It ruled that in such a court challenge, the Government has to prove a statement is false, after it has ordered a correction under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).

The court's judgment released yesterday said statistics cited by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) showed the SDP's statements about Singaporean professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) were indeed false.

Contrary to the SDP's claim, the number of local PMETs retrenched had gone down from 2015 to 2018, and the number of local PMETs employed, in absolute numbers, had been rising steadily in the same period, according to MOM figures.

As such, Justice Ang Cheng Hock said, the SDP's statements "are in fact false in the face of the statistical evidence against them".

The party thus cannot remove the correction notices it was required to put up alongside the relevant online posts.

The case centred on an article and two Facebook posts by the SDP which MOM said falsely claimed local PMET retrenchment had been going up and PMET employment had gone down. In dismissing the SDP's appeal, Justice Ang said the meaning of the published material should be determined based on how a reasonable member of the public would understand it.

Such a person would think that the share of retrenched local PMETs as a proportion of all local PMETs has been rising, he added. He said the SDP's preferred interpretation of its own material was untenable.

Among other things, the party had said it was referring only to Singaporean PMETs and not "local" PMETs, which would include Permanent Residents. It also cited two news articles from The Straits Times and Yahoo! News as the basis for its claims.

However, the judge said, the party did not cite the two news articles in its own article.

Also, he added, the ST article cites numbers on local PMETS, so the party cannot possibly claim to have relied on it, then say in the same breath its article should be seen as referring only to Singaporeans.

The judge also rejected one of the Government's two interpretations, which said a reasonable person would take the SDP material to mean that local PMET retrenchment has been increasing in absolute numerical terms.

This is because the SDP article had used the phrase "amid a rising proportion of Singapore PMETs getting retrenched". So agreeing with the Government's argument would have entailed ignoring the word "proportion", he said.

Justice Ang highlighted the fact that both sides had "attempted to cast aspersions on each other's intentions and motivations, with labels such as 'disingenuous' and 'dishonest' being bandied about".

But that is irrelevant, he said, as the court has to take an objective approach towards Pofma cases and decide whether the statements are borne out by the words and depictions in the published material, and whether the statements are true or false.

He said the court's role is to interpret legislation, not comment or adjudicate on the desirability of particular policies.

Responding to the judgement, the SDP said it is considering appealing the decision.

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