On Saturday November 10th, approximately 40 people gathered at the RELC hotel to be a part of a forum that dispensed advice to Singaporeans on how they can survive the perils of the online world.
The forum, co-organized by the National Solidarity Party (NSP) and Publichouse.sg, featured a panel comprised of SMU assistant professor Dr. Jack Lee Tsen-ta Lee, former journalist Dr. Cherian George, TOC founder Choo Zeng Xi and human rights lawyer Peter Cuthbert Low.
How to survive the perils of the online world was organized in part as a response to the scandals that broke out due to reckless behavior in the online sphere over the last year and doled out advice on the dos and don'ts of posting online in Singapore.
Troubling behavior online
Dr Jack Lee pointed out that people tend to commit defamation online without realize the potential for trouble that their actions bring. Dr Lee said that people who engage in public denigration of others online are technically committing defamation and thus open themselves up to civil action by aggrieved parties.
"If you publish a statement which makes someone else think less of the person you're talking about then that could be defamatory." stressed Dr Lee.
Peter Low then mentioned the steep financial penalties that defamation case losers have had to pay when they lose their cases to drive home the point that defamation suits do have very real consequences. Mr. Low cited the case of Mr. Tan Liang Hong who was sued for defamation by half of the cabinet and was ruled by the court to pay damages in the excess of $7.25 million as a stark reminder that defamation cases do a heavy consequence in Singaporean civil society.
Dr Lee also took a moment to remind people that once someone posts something on the internet it is virtually impossible to permanently withdraw and delete it if it goes viral. Dr Lee also mentioned that posting under a pseudonym does not guarantee that an individual could avoid having defamation charges brought up against them.
Dr Lee said that while "it is troublesome but if a person is determined enough", they can actually issue legal proceedings against the ISP" (internet service provider) to compel them to reveal the IP address of the person who made the offending post, which essentially allows the aggrieved party to eventually track down the person who defamed them online.
One little known point regarding online defamation cases Dr Lee then brought up was the fact that a defamer is also liable if their defamatory statement is reproduced by others in another venue; meaning if people repeat or republish your defamatory comment you are the one who is open to liability when a suit is brought forward.
Dr Lee then said that the best way we can protect ourselves these kind of lawsuits is to simply avoid making disparaging remarks of others with no factual basis behind them.
Scandalizing the court
The panel then shifted the focus onto another topic that was at the forefront of the headlines a few months ago: Scandalizing the court, which as Dr Lee put it is a "type of contempt of court."
Dr Lee stated that under the law it is an offense to make statements that bring the court into disrepute and cause the public to lose faith in the judiciary of Singapore.
Dr Lee said: "scandalizing the court will happen if you make a statements or carry out an act which alleges that there is bias, impartiality, impropriety or wrong doing concerning a judge in the exercise of a judicial function." Dr Lee pointed out that an example of this would include a simple statement such as saying that a judge is biased when ruling on a case.
Dr Lee said that the only way to defend against being charged with scandalizing the court would be that the criticism made of the court is done in a fair and a polite manner. In other words, any criticism levied against a court ruling in Singapore has to be made with arguments or evidence backing a claim rather then just making blind allegations without proof.
Mr. Choo reinforced this point by telling the audience that if they feel like they have a need to comment on a court case, they should only comment on either the law itself or question prosecutorial discretion. Mr. Choo said that keeping the commentary focused on critiquing the logic or reasoning of the judiciary and not crossing into the realm of character attacks is what will keep local pundits out of trouble.
Managing political risks with Out of Bounds (OB) markers
Dr. Cherian George said that essentially Singaporeans are free to talk about anything they want as long as they are done within certain perimeters. However, Dr. George said what makes the media landscape in Singapore treacherous to navigate is the fact that we have invisible and narrow OB markers in place. Dr. George pointed out that the OB markers are narrow because of the government's sensitivity to criticism and its dominant presence within Singaporean civil society.
Dr. George said that the only way to find out what these markers are or how narrow they are, is to actually come out and gently test those boundaries for any adverse reactions. Dr. George said that the markers have widened slightly in recent times because of the fact that there are too many outlets in existence and they are generally ignored as long as they do not rile up the populace or mobilize people to act against the government.
Avoiding getting personal or challenging the government's legitimacy is key to what the online sphere needs to do to manage its political risks and pushing those said boundaries. said Dr. George.