When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a Facebook post dated 3 June discussing the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on “Delfi AS v Estonia“, he might or might not have anticipated the comparisons that his followers made with his ongoing lawsuit against blogger Roy Ngerng.
Some queried if his actions against Ngerng are appropriate in light of the ECtHR case cited. While there was nothing in PM’s post that implied a link to the case, it was clear that some readers read his post to be an explanation of sorts for his actions against Ngerng. Such might be the caustic effect of a hot-button topic, but the issue was broached nevertheless. Some of the comments are:
“Is it not simpler he just answer the questions on cCPF? If one had been responsible and engaged concerns in a neutral environment instead of dialogues with asswipes, it would have been beneficial.”
“As a Prime Minister, do you think it is morally correct to sue your own citizen? If you know that the points stated by Roy on our CPF assets are false, why don’t you engage him in a public dialogue to put the facts in place?”
“Now I’m not supporting (Ngerng) but if the PM were to just issue a direct reply instead of pursuing a libel case he would’ve gained the respect of much of the Internet community.”
“Rather than calling names and suing, why not have a constructive discussion to find out why people are unhappy and how their lives have been affected by policies.”
Indeed, PM Lee should have chosen the engagement approach from the very outset. PM Lee has the same access to all the social media outlets that Ngerng had and more. He has an army of staff to research, rebut and review. Roy is but a one man show. It would be difficult, then, for the PM to fend off accusations that this appears to be less about his reputation and more about sending a message to the online community to toe the line. When, then, is this invisible line crossed? Knowing that there is a line is common knowledge, being aware of where that line ends is another story altogether.
Now, we’re not advocating that either party was right or wrong. Indeed, to cite one of PM’s followers, “I’m not arguing facts, I’m arguing tactics” when evaluating the PM’s approach to Ngerng.
Ironically, the Delfi case that both the PM and Information Minister Yaccob Ibrahim cited gave many telling signs on how PM Lee should have approached the Ngerng.
The article cited actually dealt with the threats facing online comments. The news website Delfi was alleged to have published an article on a shipping company’s change of routes which led to a flurry of comments against one shareholder, L. L alleged that these comments were defamatory and the European Court of Human Rights held that Delfi ought to have anticipated that its article would have attracted negative comments and that Delfi ought to have exercised an extra degree of caution.
Indeed the ECtHR made a specific observation: “If a commercial website allows anonymous comments, it is both “practical” and “reasonable” for it to be held legally responsible for the contents of those comments.”
It would take a massive stretch of anyone’s imagination to think that Ngerng’s The Heart Truths matches anywhere near what Delfi is as a commercial news website. Delfi has employees and is money making. Ngerng is for all intents and purposes a one man show who does not blog as a full time job and who does not depend on blogging for his livelihood. Surely there has to be a distinction between the obligations of a corporation and that of an individual citizen who just wants to have a stake in his country?
If the PM would like to cite this as a case for international standards on how to “keep online conduct civil and constructive”, then the logical reasons to sue Ngerng have to be seriously questioned. The Heart Truths is not a commercial website that is making money from the proliferation of news.
In addition, whether this case can be used as an international standard, to begin with, is still very much a major question mark. PM Lee has apparently forgotten to clearly indicate in his post that a group of media Internet companies, human rights groups and academic institutions have sent an open letter to the judge warning that this could lead to “serious adverse repercussions for… democratic openness in the digital era”. The 69 signatories included Google, Guardian News and Media, the Daily Beast, Pen International and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (of which the same Financial Times that the PM cited is a member). As can be seen, this decision has many detractors which include some very powerful names in favour of free speech.
Moreover, the cited Financial Times article also noted the following:
“Delfi had in place a notice-and-takedown system of moderation favoured by many websites. But, although the system was easy to use – it did not require anything more than clicking on a reporting button – and the comments had been removed immediately upon notice, the website didn’t receive the complaint until six weeks after the article had gone live, the same amount of time the offending comments had been accessible to the public.”
This suggests an important aspect of online communication: That it has the ability to cater for immediate avenues of redress, and users have the right to use these avenues, the standards which content owners also need to uphold. The questions we then need to ask: Did Ngerng have such avenues of redress in place, and was he given the opportunity by the PM to take down his article before the first letter of demand was issued? What was stopping the PM or even the CPF Board from requesting the right to reply to Ngerng’s article? Why was legal action taken as the first line of defence? Is the PM less capable of using the Internet and any other means of communicating at his disposal, compared to Ngerng?
In retrospect, we note firstly that Ngerng’s The Heart Truths is not a commercial entity. Secondly, this cited decision by ECtHR is controversial in itself and not an “international” example by any means, as the PM seems to suggest for us to believe. Thirdly, the case points to the fact that the PM could have responded by direct engagement with Ngerng as a first option and leave legal action as a last resort.
It is also worth noting that the Delfi case raised concerns among the Internet community for its potential chilling effect on whistle-blowing and open conversations on sensitive issues. Any government policy should be open to question without fear of penalty. This is even when such criticism borders on accusations of poor management. Government policies should be open to scrutiny by all involved – i.e. all Singaporeans.
As it is, a great number of Singaporeans have already drawn their own lines by rallying to Ngerng’s cause. Not necessarily because they believe in everything he wrote. Not because they disagree with the PAP’s CPF policy. Not even because they want the PAP to crash and burn. They rallied to his cause because they have an inherent sense of justice, that when something is even remotely questionable, a voice needs to be heard. That, in fact, was the true lesson to be learnt from the Delfi case, even if the parties involved occupy very different positions from “PM vs Ngerng”.
The Internet is growing from strength to strength. Some see this growth and fear a media of unbridled chaos, when in reality there are many avenues of recourse that makes it a lot more civil, without the need for the law to step in. Politicians, above all others, are in a much better position to engage. It would be sad if ours flinch and reach immediately for the big red button, at the slightest suggestion of them or their policies being wronged.