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“Fake news”?: Allegations made by Minister of Law and Home Affairs against TOC over the past years

I read with great interest that Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam has been appointed as one of the committee members to review the situation of fake news being disseminated in Singapore.

The Minister has in recent times, voiced his displeasure on alternative news sites, particularly, The Online Citizen (TOC) in Parliament, pointing that the publication engages in falsehoods, particularly against the police. So it is pretty likely that the Minister will include the past allegations against TOC in the report by the committee.

So as part of TOC's submission to the deliberation process, here is a look at some of the allegations made by the Minister in recent times.

During his Parliament statement made on the 14-yr-old Benjamin Lim's suicide case in March 2016, the Minister claimed that TOC had gone on an orchestrated campaign of falsehoods against the police.

He said,

A number of these falsehoods have been put out by The Online Citizen (TOC). It has gone on a planned, orchestrated campaign, using falsehoods and has published about 20 articles or so, as part of its campaign. One example of the falsehoods, as I had said earlier, Police have said on 1 February that they went down in plain clothes. Yet TOC published an article on 5 February saying that police wore attire stating the word "Police". The suggestion is that the police were lying to Singaporeans.

They supposedly relied on a posting by a lady, Mary Anne Pereira. She had stated that her son saw Police officers with Polo T-shirts in the word "Police". Police checked with Ms Pereira. She says she had gotten it wrong. She got her dates mixed up. She is wrong because the Police went to the school, in plain clothes on 26 January. She has taken down her post.

People make many statements online. They can be mistaken. That is why there is a Court process to establish the truth. The overall narrative and impression conveyed by the various TOC articles are: (i) Police were lying; (2) Police intimidated the boy; and (3) Police put pressure on him to confess to a crime that he did not commit. Allegations, implications which are false, practically leading people to conclude that Benjamin committed suicide as a result.

He then presents a table to list some of the articles and the alleged falsehoods, unfounded implications which the articles are said to convey.

Before we touch on the Minister's presented allegations. Here is the conversation that TOC had with the mother who claims her son had told her that the officers had Police written on their t-shirts. One can read the report that TOC wrote in relation to the mother's statement here.

As mentioned in the Minister's speech, the police denied the claims but refuse to release the CCTV footage which would clear all doubts on the matter, even at the coroner's inquiry of Benjamin Lim's death.

Next, we look at the table of falsehoods that the Minister presented. Thanks to the defunct Middleground, the allegations that were presented to the Parliament are preserved online. (Facebook source)

As an example of how strong the Minister's accusation against TOC is, we refer to one of the stories highlighted in the presented table. "Father with dementia, forced to confess to an offence by police". The story is based on what a daughter wrote into TOC describing how her father with dementia was forced to confess to an offence which was not committed by him and how she had to go through means and ways in order to redress her father. The police never wrote back in response to TOC's inquiries.

What the Minister did not highlight in his presentation is that the end result of the case was that the father mentioned in the case had the charges dropped.

In fact, all the allegations in the table did not have any form of explanation as to why are the stories considered allegations and how they are connected to Benjamin Lim's case, other than highlighting the issue with the lack of checks and balances of the police force.

Also in April 2017, Member of Parliament Lim Biow Chuan asked in Parliament whether the police will consider taking action to protect its reputation when persons make false and malicious allegations against the police.

In response to his question, the Minister said,

The Online Citizen (TOC) glorifies in running the Police down with a series of untrue stories. I referred to some stories last year on their untruths. In a recent case, TOC alleged that Police officers had accused a wheelchair-bound man of motorcycle theft. It was designed to make people angry; falsehood. The Police corrected the allegation within a day. The man was never accused of being involved in any motor vehicle theft, nor was he asked to provide any statement at a police station.

Mr Lim was raising the question in response to a story that was highlighted to TOC by a daughter who wrote in about her wheelchair-bound father, who was then accused of being involved in a case of motorcycle theft by police officers from the Singapore Police Force.

What the Minister did not mention in his reply is that TOC had written to the Police two months prior to the publication of the story and the police choose not to reply. Only when the story was published and went viral, did the police publish a clarification on its Facebook page to disclaim the allegation made by the daughter against the officers of the case. And the details of the case, proves that the recollection by the daughter had been correct, other than the part where the police officers had wanted to bring the father back to the station.

So as anyone can see from the past incidents, other than the police saying that what has been written are untrue, there is no other evidence to prove otherwise and the government's stance is that so long the police deny of the allegations, there is no truth to the matter.

Will the government's definition of deliberate fake news be such that anything that the government deems fake will be fake without the need for proof? And how is it that the government agencies such as the Police can simply refuse to answer any queries that are of the public interest?