Thursday, March 3, 2016

Benjamin Lim case: MPs question if release of more information could have dispelled falsehoods

Ng Jing Yng

March 1, 2016

SINGAPORE — The question of whether the authorities could have shared more information to dispel allegations on the Benjamin Lim case being circulated was raised by Members of Parliament (MPs) on Tuesday (March 1), after the Home Affairs and Education ministers set out the facts of the case and their protocols to handle such matters.

Although Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said it was a deliberate decision to refrain from passing comments out of respect for the boy’s family and the young girl in the alleged molestation, MPs expressed concern about the public being misled by falsehoods being spread in public and online. The 14-year-old boy was found dead at the foot of his HDB block on Jan 26 after he had been questioned on an alleged molestation.

Others also asked if protocols for police investigations and schools’ handling of investigations involving students needed to be tweaked, even as a review is underway, including on the suggestion for a familiar adult figure to accompany minors being questioned.

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Intan Azura Mokhtar spoke about openness in sharing information.

“There (were) many speculations, accusations and unverified accounts on social media sites. In future, will the ministry be more responsive and be more open in sharing information with both print and online news media so as to make verifications or dispel accusations that are floating around?” she asked.

During his speech, Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, lashed out at socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) for its deliberate campaign to tar the police through publishing false information in the 20-or-so articles on the case.

Responding to Dr Intan, the minister reiterated that it would be “unseemly” to have a situation where different parties go back and forth in making allegations and counter allegations. “It will be free-for-all — that is precisely what legal proceedings are designed to avoid ... (to) have a proper process for finding out the facts. Otherwise, who is to say that my truth is superior to your truth,” he said.

Mr Shanmugam also stood by his ministry’s decision to avoid commenting earlier. Alluding to TOC, he said the website was “cavalier” in its statements about the case, which required the ministry to clarify the facts in Parliament on Tuesday.

East Coast GRC MP Jessica Tan also weighed in on the same issue, saying discussions online cannot be ignored in the “very emotive and sensitive” situation, even though she acknowledged that there is a need to be cautious with sharing information in such circumstances.

But could some information be shared with online sites so as to not “fire these emotions” further, she asked. Mr Shanmugam replied that all forms of media must observe the legal principle of contempt.
While general issues concerning policy can be raised, facts must be decided through a proper inquiry procedure, he added.

“Just because you are online doesn’t mean you get a free pass and you can say what you like ... It is even more egregious when it is all a bunch of lies,” said Mr Shanmugam, adding that information will be released whenever it is legally possible to do so.

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Melvin Yong also asked about TOC’s conduct in terms of the coverage of this case, while Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng asked about Benjamin’s father speaking to the website to pursue the matter even though the minister had said the family wanted to be out of the spotlight.

Mr Shanmugam reiterated his doubts about the content published by TOC and added that the website’s coverage of the incident was a “calculated, cynical attempt to tar the police”.

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