Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam informed the Parliament that the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) is looking into a doctored newspaper report on Facebook that claimed a lawyer from the People's Action Party (PAP) had saved the accused leaders of the City Harvest case from harsher sentences of the charges filed against them.
He was responding to a question by Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC, Mr Gan Thiam Poh who had asked for the Government's response to comments that the City Harvest case had been handled by a lawyer who is a PAP MP, referring to Mr Edwin Tong who is also a MP for Marine Parade GRC.
The Court of Appeal had last Thursday upheld a ruling made by the High Court in April last year that Section 409 of the Penal Code, which provides for heavier punishments for certain classes of people who commit criminal breach of trust, cannot be applied to City Harvest founder Kong Hee and five others who allegedly misused millions of church funds because they cannot be considered as "agents" under the wordings of the section.
Mr Shanmugam stressed in his reply to Mr Gan that accused persons have the right to engage a lawyer of their choice, and said “Even a child rapist is entitled to his day in court and to be defended. It does not mean that we, or the lawyer defending the person, approves of child rape…Lawyers should not be made to feel that they will be hounded online if they take up cases.”
He then highlighted the manipulated image of a Chinese newspaper report that was put on a Facebook group and said that this will be dealt with in accordance with the law, stating that authorities take a serious view of those who scandalise the court and warned against "a mob mentality" that causes lawyers to be "hounded online".
Mr Shanmugam warned: "This sort of attack, based on deliberate faking, is quite unacceptable. I cannot see how any reasonable person will justify such faking as a legitimate expression of free speech."
He added: "I have asked the police to take a serious view of those who scandalise the court."
Mr Shanmugam said:"AGC takes a view that the suggestion from the fake title is that the PAP MP was responsible for an unfair, unjust outcome and the courts had let off the defendants lightly because of him." He added that AGC considers this a case of contempt, by scandalising the courts.
The original headline on the front page of Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao reads: "Dated law saved them“ while the amended headline reads:"PAP Lawyer saved them".
AGC's interpretation of the Facebook post seems to go beyond the face value of the content, the same kind of approach it took when it deemed the private Facebook comments of Li Shengwu as a case of contempt.
Of course, the responses to the post which suggest that the judiciary has to "give face" to lawyers who are PAP MPs, would likely to be found in contempt under the Administration of Justice Act (given the general wording of the law) but the doctored image does not deviate that far from the facts of the case.
Is it not true that Mr Tong, who is also from PAP, relied on arguments that based on the legal gaps presented by the dated law to defend his clients in court and successfully obtained a reduced sentenced as a result of his defence? In fact, any lawyer who is a member of PAP would also qualify the doctored heading as factual, but it is just much significant that the lawyer so happens to be a PAP MP at the same time.
Is the government's attack on such creative expressions, a clear sign of what "fake news" it seeks to combat?
Andrew's comment as found on Straits Times' Facebook post, might shed some clarity on the intention of the AGC.
In my view, the only people who should be looking into the case if they wish to, ought to be Lianhe Wanbao for misusing their content and PAP to file a defamation suit, after all, that is what they are pretty well-known for.