Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in Parliament today that the Attorney-General’s Chambers is looking into a doctored image relating to the City Harvest Church trials, as a case of contempt by scandalising the courts.
The doctored image in question had to do with ruling party parliamentarian Edwin Tong, who also served as City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee’s defense lawyer. The individuals who created and circulated the image took a copy of Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao’s front page that was originally entitled “Outdated law ‘saved’ the accused from harsher penalties” and changed it to “PAP lawyer ‘saved’ the accused from harsher penalties”.
The Law Minister revealed:
“AGC takes the view that the suggestion from the fake title is that the PAP MP was responsible for an unfair, unjust outcome and the Courts have let off the defendants lightly because of him.
“The matter is with AGC and will be dealt with in accordance with the law.”
“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 also revealed: “I’ve asked the police to take a serious view of those who scandalise court – not only for this case, if there are other comments which cross the threshold and are in contempt of court, our approach is that action will be taken.”
The Minister said that judges should not be abused or have their integrity challenged and added that lawyers “should not be made to feel that they will be hounded online, if they take up cases”. He also shared a unique personal account from his law career in which he had to act against the Government.
Read that account and the Minister’s comments on what kind of action will be taken against those whose comments challenge the integrity of the courts here in full:
The Minister is aware, that there have been comments the Courts let off people who are rich, that the courts were influenced by religious reasons. I assume the Minister is also aware of comments that a PAP MP (People’s Action Party Member of Parliament) got them off lightly. Minister referred to some of these comments in his speech. Can Minister clarify what the government intends to do about such comments, beyond saying that these are unacceptable? Can Minister also clarify what his views are, about attacks on lawyers in such cases?
I said earlier that it is entirely legitimate to express one’s unhappiness about court decisions. But some statements have indeed gone too far, abusing the judges personally, ascribing improper ulterior motives to the decision.
And it is really a clear case of abusing the anonymity of the net, or the anonymity to the extent that it exists. Just because you don’t agree with the judges, doesn’t mean you have the right to abuse them and challenge their integrity. People who abuse judges, challenge their integrity, will be prosecuted, if a case for contempt can be made out. I will set out later some factors which would be relevant in this context.
The Courts should not be pressured by public opinion. They should be free to decide in accordance with what they believe the law to be. Criminal cases must be tried in the court of law, not in the court of public opinion.
A few years ago, I had already expected that there would be more and more of such scurrilous attacks on the Judiciary. If left alone, they will become the norm.
That is why we legislated into law the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act (AOJP). One of those opposing it, I think it was Mr Perera, asked me in this House, why the need for this law.
This is one relatively small illustration. If we do nothing, it will get much worse and become unsolvable. We don’t want to end up like the UK, where the press freely attacks the judiciary.
You get newspaper headlines, screaming banner headlines labelling Judges as “enemies of the people”, “you fools”, because the courts had the temerity to decide in a way that the media did not like.
If we are not careful, we will easily go down that route. Let me give Members a current example.
There is a public Facebook group with a Chinese name, which I understand can be translated as “Policy Discussion Forum” (议论政策论坛). I was informed that a copy of a news article was posted on February 2 last week on this Facebook Group.
The article had appeared in the Chinese news daily Lianhe Wanbao on the same day. It was a report on the CHC matter. The title of the news article, the banner headlines, had however been faked in the Facebook post.
The original title, translated, was, I quote, “Outdated law ‘saved’ the accused from harsher penalties” (“避过加重刑罚…过时法律”救”了他们”).
Someone appeared to have faked the title into, and I quote, “PAP Lawyer ‘saved’ the accused from harsher penalties” (“避过加重刑罚…行动党律师”救”了他们”), making it look as if the mass circulation newspaper had done so, probably to give more credit to the headline.
The AGC (Attorney-General’s Chambers) takes the view that the suggestion from the fake title is that the PAP MP was responsible for an unfair, unjust outcome and the Courts have let off the defendants lightly because of him. AGC’s view is that this is a case of Contempt, by scandalising the Courts.
I don’t want to go into the meanings of the fake title, because the matter is with AGC, and it will be dealt with in accordance with the law. Whatever the meaning of the statement, and regardless of whether or not it is in contempt, one can see that 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.
I have asked the Police to take a serious view of those who scandalise the Court. Not only for this case. If there are other comments which cross the threshold and are in contempt of the court, our approach is that action will be taken.
That has been so before the AOJP and it remains so after the AOJP. In coming to a decision whether to prosecute for scandalising the courts, the factors will include assessing who said it, how seriously is the statement likely to be taken, how wide was the publication, and other relevant factors.
It has always been the case, even before the AOJP. AGC will assess the various statements that have come to their notice, in this context.
And quite apart from whether the fake headlines scandalise the Court, there is another point.
Defendants are entitled to get a lawyer of their choice. Rule of law, a civilised system of having trials in court, depend amongst other things, on lawyers being able to act for defendants, whatever offences the defendants are accused of.
As I have said before, several times, even a child rapist is entitled to his day in court, and to be defended. It doesn’t mean that we, or the lawyer defending the person, approves of child rape. But the defendant has a right to choose a lawyer to defend him. And we must not take that away from him.
Lawyers should not be made to feel that they will be hounded online, if they take up cases.
Let me share a personal example with Members, from when I was in practice. I am probably in the unique position, in Singapore, someone who has both acted for the three PMs of Singapore, and also of having acted against all three of them.
In 1995, PM Goh, SM Lee and DPM Lee as they were then, sued the International Herald Tribune for libel.
The IHT came to me. The conversation as to whether I will act for them took about two minutes. I told them they must know I was a PAP MP. Were they comfortable, that they will get the best possible advice from me, given my position?
They knew that I was an MP, PAP MP. They said it was ok with them, if it was ok with me. It was ok with me. I didn’t see any need to clear with the Party or anyone connected to the Party or Government.
By taking on the case, I was simply doing my professional duty. I didn’t need to take on the brief. I was very busy with other work.
But I thought the IHT had a right to Counsel of its choice. They were faced, obviously, with particularly formidable plaintiffs and hoped to get Counsel of their choice. And so I should help the IHT.
The import of my acting for the IHT, and it went to court, did not escape SM Lee Kuan Yew. In court, after his evidence was over, and before he stepped out of the witness box, he said he had to point out the situation.
He said that I was close to the three of them, meaning the PM, SM and DPM. I was a PAP MP. The decision by the IHT, despite the situation, to instruct me was, I quote, the ‘highest tribute to the integrity of the Counsel’, and ‘possibly reflected also on the integrity of the Government’.
Over the years, I have also acted for various others whose conduct will not be approved of by the general public, and some of whom were impecunious and could not pay fees. I acted for them, whenever I could, based on certain principles which I do not need to go into here.
The headline that I referred to earlier in the Facebook page, is part of a mob mentality to hound lawyers, to intimidate them into not acting in cases which the mob disapproves of. It is quite shameful.
Supposing no action is taken when public Facebook pages do this, then what is there to prevent the media itself from publishing such articles in the future? By action here, I don’t necessarily just mean contempt action.
If we accept such faking as normal, then you can then see that the line between that and the current position in the UK almost disappears. You will then get in the mainstream media, the headlines I earlier spoke about, about judges, abusing them, and other similar sort of things.
We should not get there. It will be a sad day for Singapore, if we do get there.