Protection from Harassment Act – False Statements of Fact

Attorney-General v Ting Choon Meng and another appeal [2017] 1 SLR 373

1. Introduction

We acted for the Singapore current affairs website, The Online Citizen, successfully responding to the Government’s appeal to the Court of Appeal.

2. Background

This case involved a question of statutory interpretation as to whether the Government was a ‘person’ under Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act and was therefore entitled to bring the Online Citizen to Court to seek an order that certain statements made by the Online Citizen about MINDEF were false.

Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act provides:

False statements of fact

15.—(1)  Where any statement of fact about any person (referred to in this section as the subject) which is false in any particular about the subject has been published by any means, the subject may apply to the District Court for an order under subsection (2) in respect of the statement complained of.

(2)  Subject to section 21(1), the District Court may, upon the application of the subject under subsection (1), order that no person shall publish or continue to publish the statement complained of unless that person publishes such notification as the District Court thinks necessary to bring attention to the falsehood and the true facts.

(3)  The District Court shall not make an order under subsection (2) unless the District Court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that —

(a) the statement of fact complained of is false in any particular about the subject; and

(b) it is just and equitable to do so.

(4)  An order under subsection (2) may be made subject to such exceptions or conditions as may be specified in the order.

(5)  An order under subsection (2) shall take effect in respect of the person to whom such order applies —

(a) from the date when such order is served on him in such manner as may be prescribed;

(b) where the District Court dispenses with the service of such order, from the date when the service on him of such order is dispensed with by the District Court; or

(c) such later date as the District Court may specify.

(6)  The District Court may, on the application of the subject, the author, or any person to whom the order applies, vary, suspend or cancel the order.

(7)  In this section, “author” means the originator of the statement complained of.

3. Rare split 2-1

In a rare 2-1 split decision, the majority of the Court agreed with our argument that the word ‘person’ under the Protection from Harassment Act could not be construed as extending to the Government. There was accordingly no legal basis for the Government to have commenced court proceedings against the Online Citizen under Section 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act.