Falsehoods vs. Defamatory Statements: What’s the Difference?

Last updated on June 26, 2024

person looking at defamatory statement

On 24 April 2024, Mr Ariffin Iskandar Sha Ali Akbar, the alleged administrator for alternative news site Wake Up, Singapore (WUSG), was charged with defamation for his involvement in the publication of a false story. The article reported that a woman who was 20 weeks pregnant and had tested positive for Covid-19 had arrived at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital after experiencing several abdominal pains, but owing to mismanagement by the hospital, suffered a miscarriage. The woman’s claims turned out to be false. WUSG received and published a correction direction under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), and also issued an apology.

Both Mr Ariffin and the woman, Ma Su Nandar Htwe, were charged with defamation under the Penal Code.

As can be seen, there are multiple legal avenues under which the makers of either false or defamatory statements can be dealt with. It is thus important to explore the differences between both of these, as well as the causes of action and avenues for legal recourse available to both the makers of such statements, and any victims.

This article will cover:

What is a Falsehood?

Under the POFMA, a falsehood refers to a statement of fact that is false or misleading, wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in context.

For example, the Singapore States Times published a Facebook post on 4 May 2020 stating that “Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is responsible for numerous infections in schools” and “at least 50 students and teachers were already infected” when schools were closed down. These statements implied that at least 50 students and teachers had become infected with COVID-19 as a result of transmission in schools, which was false. In fact, none of the infections at that time were traced back to MOE schools. These statements were thus falsehoods.

The determination of whether the identified subject statement is “false” is done so by the court on an objective basis.

Such falsehoods may be spread online, or through traditional media such as newspapers.

How is a Falsehood Dealt With Under Singapore’s Laws?

An online falsehood is usually dealt with under the POFMA, which is specifically intended to prevent the communication of such false statements of fact in Singapore and enable measures to be taken to counteract the effects of such communication.

Section 7 of the POFMA deals with the communication of false statements of fact in Singapore. For someone to be held liable under section 7, two limbs must be satisfied. A person must communicate a statement in Singapore knowing or having reason to believe that:

  1. It is a false statement of fact; and
  2. The communication of the statement in Singapore is likely to:
    • Be prejudicial to the security of Singapore or any part of Singapore;
    • Be prejudicial to public health, public safety, public tranquillity or public finances;
    • Be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Singapore with other countries;
    • Influence the outcome of an election to the office of President, a general election of Members of Parliament, a by‑election of a Member of Parliament, or a referendum;
    • Incite feelings of enmity, hatred or ill‑will between different groups of persons; or
    • Diminish public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by, the government, an Organ of State, a statutory board, or a part of the government, an Organ of State or a statutory board.

Any person who contravenes section 7 of the POFMA is guilty of an offence, and in the case of an individual, liable to a fine of up to $50,000 or an imprisonment term of up to 5 years, or both. In any other case, the fine will be up to $500,000.

The penalties are enhanced if an inauthentic online account or bot is used to accelerate the communication of such falsehoods. For example, if a user creates a false X (formerly known as ”Twitter”) account and reposts a tweet containing a falsehood, or uses an automated programme to rapidly repost falsehoods, this attracts higher penalties. This has been seen in Singapore, where user accounts that appeared to belong to foreign individuals had posted on local media’s Facebook pages about denying the crisis faced by Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and making Islamophobic comments. In such cases, the fine is increased to a maximum of $100,000, with imprisonment for a term of up to 10 years, or both. In any other case, the fine will be up to $1 million.

Any Minister may also instruct the Competent Authority (defined either as a statutory board, or the holder of any government office) to issue a Correction Direction. Briefly, a Correction Direction is issued to the person who made the post containing the falsehood, and requires the person to publish a notice indicating that the earlier post contained false information. The notice may also contain a link to websites such as www.gov.sg/factually, which contains factual clarifications from the Singapore government.

Alternatively, the Minister may also direct IMDA to order the relevant internet access service provider to take reasonable steps to disable access by end‑users in Singapore to the online location of the falsehoods. This is known as an access blocking order under section 16 of the POFMA.

Any person who is served with a Correction Direction, or an access blocking order and fails to comply shall be liable on conviction to a fine of up to $20,000 or to imprisonment for a term of up to 12 months or to both, or in any other case, to a fine of up to $500,000.

Please refer to our other article for a more detailed guide to the POFMA.

What is a Defamatory Statement?

A statement is considered to be defamatory if it:

  • Lowers the *plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally;
  • Causes the plaintiff to be shunned or avoided; or
  • Exposes the plaintiff to hatred, contempt or ridicule.

Essentially, such a defamatory statement is harmful to the person’s reputation.

Whether a statement is defamatory is generally determined based on the construction of the natural and ordinary meaning of the words used, as conveyed to an ordinary person.

An example of a defamatory statement was where a blogger, Leong Sze Hian, posted a link on Facebook to an article that contained a statement about allegations of corruption against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. As the statement contained untrue statements which harmed PM Lee’s reputation, the sharing of the link was found to be defamatory.

*A plaintiff, or claimant, refers to the person who begins the claim in court.

How are Defamatory Statements Dealt With Under Singapore’s Laws?

Defamation may be prosecuted as a criminal offence under section 499 of the Penal Code, or as a civil claim. The key difference between criminal and civil defamation is the standard of proof. For criminal defamation, the elements must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, which is higher than the civil standard of proof. In other words, more evidence needs to be brought forward to establish criminal defamation.

There are three elements to the offence of criminal defamation:

  1. Making or publishing an imputation concerning any person;
  2. Making such imputation by spoken or written words, or by signs or by visible representations; and
  3. Making such imputation with the intention of harming or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation would harm the reputation of that person.

Criminal defamation is punishable under section 500 of the Penal Code with imprisonment for a term of up to 2 years, or with fine, or with both.

For example, in 2022, Mr Xu Yuanchen, the director of The Online Citizen Pte Ltd was prosecuted, and found guilty of making defamatory statements against members of the Cabinet in Singapore. He was sentenced to 3 weeks’ jail for criminal defamation.

Alternatively, a victim of a defamatory statement may sue for damages by filing a civil claim before the courts. To succeed in his claim, the plaintiff must show:

  • A statement bearing a defamatory meaning (as discussed in the previous section);
  • Publication to a third party; and
  • That the statement referred to the plaintiff.

The quantum of damages received will depend on, among other things, the degree of dissemination of the defamatory statement, and the status of the victim in question.

How Does a Falsehood Differ From a Defamatory Statement?

As can be seen from the discussion above, while both falsehoods and defamatory statements involve the dissemination of false information, they differ in their legal implications. A false statement of fact relates to the objective determination of the falsity of the statement, while defamation focuses on the harm inflicted upon an individual’s reputation. For instance, the HDB listings of a “jumbo flat” in Sengkang and a 5-room Design, Build and Sell Scheme (DBSS) HDB flat in Toa Payoh for $2 million were falsehoods in that they were misleading, but did not affect anyone’s reputation and so were not defamatory. If, hypothetically, someone made a baseless comment that those listings were the result of corruption in the Cabinet, that would amount to defamation as it would harm the Cabinet’s reputation.

However, the POFMA (which is the primary method of redress for falsehoods) does not alter the law of defamation in Singapore by giving individuals an additional avenue for legal recourse. Thus, individuals cannot sue under the POFMA for a false or defamatory allegation made against them. The goal of the POFMA is to prevent harm caused to the government and its agencies because of online falsehoods, rather than giving individuals additional legal avenues to pursue claims made against them that were untrue and defamatory.

That being said, individuals can be held legally liable for both spreading falsehoods and making defamatory statements. Generally, the difference is that for the former, they are held criminally liable by the state, whereas for the latter, they are held privately liable by other individuals who are suing to clear their name. However, as we have seen in the WUSG case, it may also be possible to prosecute an individual for criminal defamation. Whether the criminal and civil processes run concurrently, or consecutively would be a matter of case management by the court, or the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

In conclusion, one should appreciate that there are distinctions between falsehoods and defamation. Individuals can only sue for defamation, but not for someone else’s falsehood under the POFMA. However, they can face civil liability for defamation, as well as criminal liability for defamation under the Penal Code and the POFMA.

Individuals who find themselves, or their loved ones, facing a claim for defamation, or criminal charges under the Penal Code or POFMA should seek guidance from lawyers who can provide the necessary support and expertise. The same applies to those who may wish to file a civil claim for defamation. A criminal lawyer or civil lawyer, as the case might be, would help individuals navigate the court process, and protect their rights/interests in such a case.