With POFMA, who would risk reporting on ‘controversial’ stories that highlight problems in certain branches of government?

You might remember the tragic story from 2016 of 14-year old Benjamin Lim Jun Hui who had apparently committed suicide a few hours after being interrogated by the police for an outrage of modesty case. The horrific incident was first reported by TOC.

Back in 2016, young Benjamin Lim was picked up at school by several police officers after a police report was made by an 11-year old girl who alleged that Benjamin has molested her in the lift of a block of flats. The police has visited the school to “to establish the identity of a student who was captured on closed-circuit television footage at the lift lobby of an HDB block”

After about three hours of interrogation at the Ang Mo Kio Police Divison – during which time Benjamin’s mother was not allowed to see him – the boy was released to his mother who took him home. Several hours later, the family discovered that Benjamin had locked himself in his room. After using a spare key to open the door, they found that Benjamin was nowhere in sight and his window was open. Running down, Benjamin’s mother found him lying on the ground after apparently jumping out of his window 14 floors up.

In the days following Benjamin’s death, speculation was rife as to what led Benjamin to take such a drastic step. His mother had noted that she wasn’t allowed to see him when he was being interrogated and that Benjamin had told her he didn’t do what he was accused of doing. Benjamin did eventually confess, said his mother. When she asked why he had confessed when he didn’t actually do anything wrong, he said “you say I’m guilty, then I’m guilty”.

Benjamin’s father Mr Lim had also told TOC that the principal of the school didn’t share any information about what transpired between the police and his son at the school.

Minister’s clarification

Over a month later, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam made a speech in Parliament regarding the case. In his statement, Mr Shamugam attempted to clarify speculation and conflicting accounts of what had happened.

He said that there was CCTV footage showing Benjamin following the girl into the lift and footage within the lift showing what happened on 25 Jan. He also said that on 26 Jan that plainclothes police officers headed to the school to identify Benjamin. While a student said that the ‘plainclothes’ officers actually wore t-shirts with the word ‘POLICE’ written on the back, Mr Shanmugam denied the claim.

He then said Benjamin was questioned by one officer in the presence of school staff in the principal’s office before being brought to the Ang Mo Kio Police Division for questioning. There, was questioned again by an officer (with another in the vicinity but not part of the questioning). Mr Shan said that Benjamin asked for time to collect his thoughts before giving a statement at 12.15pm admitting to the act.

He added that the 14-year old declined the offer for food and drink after interview. He was then place in temporary holding alone before his mum took him home on S$2,000 bail some 3.5 hours after he first arrived at the police station.

Nothing supported by evidence

The thing is, nothing Mr Shanmugam claimed in his Parliamentary statement is supported by evidence. Neither Benjamin nor his mom (who was also interviewed by the police when she arrived at the station) receive a copy of their statement nor was there an official report from the police of the interrogation or what was said.

All we have is the word of Mr Shanmugam and some floor plans he presented during his speech in Parliament to show where Benjamin was questioned. The minister attempted to systematically counter every claim made by media reports that hinted at mishandling of the case which led to Benjamin jumping out of his 14th floor bedroom window the same day he was interrogated.

In fact, in his speech the minister specifically singled out TOC for reports published on the case for having unfairly tarred the police. He described the reporting as a “planned, orchestrated campaign, using falsehoods”.

In response, TOC published a response to the Minister’s allegations to address several points including that TOC’s report on the police t-shirts were based on what a woman had said which TOC attempted to verify.

TOC even specified that several attempts were made to contact the police for information went unanswered and that the neither the police, Home Affairs or Law Ministries or anyone else from the government reached out to TOC to offer clarification which we would have been happy to present.

The point being that the Minister accused TOC of spreading falsehoods which a deliberate attempt to mislead, which TOC strongly rejects. Though the articles may have contained certain ‘inaccuracies’, these are not the same as falsehoods and given the limited information available to TOC, it’s only natural that some of the reports were not fully accurate. The story was, at the time, still developing and it was made clear that TOC was doing the best with the information on hand.

The 25 odd articles which were published (only 4 of which were written in-house, the rest being opinion pieces and letters from the public) was hardly an ‘orchestrated campaign’ as suggested by Mr Shanmugan.

Who would risk reporting on controversial stories?

Now the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Misinformation Act (POFMA) which was proposed on 1 April 2019 covers not only news that is outright fake but also news or posts that “diminish public confidence” in the government, making it a jailable offence.

The original article published in 2016 detailing the incident and which featured an interview with Benjamin’s mother who recounted what had happened in great detail was written by TOC editor Terry Xu. If POFMA was already in place back then, it’s likely Terry would be imprisoned for writing that article which Minister K Shan described as a “deliberate falsehoods”.

We should note that even if the Minister hadn’t described these articles as falsehoods, there’s no doubt that the story clearly caused alarm in the community as evidenced by the 21 statements, letters, and opinions from the public published by the site. This resulted in the police eventually starting a trial program of having children who are being questioned to be accompanied by appropriate adults, which three years on is still a trial program.

So even if the Mr Shanmugan didn’t attack TOC for allegedly publishing ‘falsehoods’, POFMA would allow him to go after TOC for ‘diminishing public confidence’ in the police.

That being the case, once POFMA is enacted, who would dare to report on stories like this in the future? They would risk putting themselves in the line of fire of POFMA the moment they pointed out the inconsistencies of a story that would subsequently affect public confidence in the government. Who would take that risk?

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