Shanmugam vs The Online Citizen: Accusations of ‘orchestrated campaign’ gets rebutted

In Parliament yesterday, the tragic case of Benjamin Lim was finally discussed on a public platform by public servants, where Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam addressed the contentious issue. 

First, some context of what transpired. 14-year-old Benjamin Lim was found dead at the foot of his HDB block in an apparent suicide, just hours after he was released from police interrogation over allegations of molesting a girl. Earlier that morning, policemen pulled him out of school and brought him in for questioning at Ang Mo Kio Police Headquarters. He was alone throughout the interrogation, and was not allowed to see his mother. 

Intensive reports by The Online Citizen (TOC) on the case revealed some contrasts between what the police said happened, and what took place from the perspective of Benjamin’s family. Rising tides of discontent against police procedures involving minors came fast from netizens amidst weeks-long silence by the Government. 

Yesterday however, Minister Shanmugam spilled the beans on a multitude of elements concerning the Benjamin Lim case. Aside from giving a full disclosure of the case from the Ministry of Home Affairs’ side, he also touched on why there was no substantive statement made on the matter before, as well as possible amendments to police protocol.

An outstanding section of his speech however was dedicated to slamming TOC, accusing them of going on “a planned, orchestrated campaign, using falsehoods, and has published about 20 articles or so as part of its campaign.” Oof. 

TOC has since rebutted the points made by Shanmugam — they’re all summarised below: 

Police attire

Shanmugam said: 

Police had said on 1 February that they went in plain clothes. Yet TOC published an article on 5 February saying that Police wore attire stating “Police”.  The suggestion is that the Police were lying to Singaporeans.

They supposedly relied on a posting by a lady, Mary Anne Pereira. She had stated that her son saw Police Officers with Polo T-shirts and the word “Police”. Police checked with Ms Pereira. She says she had gotten it wrong.  She got her dates mixed up. She is wrong because the Police went to the school in plain clothes on 26 January. She has taken down her post. People make many statements online. They can be mistaken. This is why there is a Court process, to establish the truth.

TOC said: 

We did not just take Ms Mary Anne Pereira’s post from the SPF FB page. We made the additional effort to reach out to Ms Pereira to verify what she said through messaging her on FB.

Ms Pereira told us that her son, who is attending Benjamin’s school, had seen men with the word “POLICE” on the back of their t-shirts on the day Benjamin was taken away. We reported what she told us, and made clear that the information was provided by a student at Benjamin’s school. We also said that Ms Pereira informed us she was aware that the school was affiliated to a community-based police subdivision, and that she wasn’t certain if some members of that subdivision might have been at the school at the time. (Link to article)

Prior to publishing the article, we reached out to the police, Mr Shanmugum, and other officials for comment. However, we did not receive any reply.


Family privacy

Shanmugam said: 

And even at this stage, I have decided that we should not release the CCTV footages of what happened in the lift, out of respect for Benjamin’s memory and to help the young girl as well. Police have continued to engage the family. When Police spoke with Benjamin’s family last week, his father told us:-

​i) The family felt pressured by the public and media attention – photographers and reporters have been loitering around their house.

ii) He asked for privacy, and explained that he would like his family to be kept out of the spotlight.

iii) He asked that we inform the media of this and tell the media that the family did not want their identity, names, pictures published.

iv) The family even asked for the entire Coroner’s Inquiry proceedings be held in private. AGC will give the request careful consideration. Ultimately it will be up to the court to decide.

Yesterday, the father spoke with a police officer. He repeated those requests.

TOC said:

First, the Minister said Benjamin’s family wanted privacy. He said that out of respect for the family, his ministry had refrained from commenting on the case until now. They also wanted to protect the alleged victim.

TOC spoke to Benjamin’s father, Mr Lim, after the parliamentary session today (1 March). This is what he told us:

“The confidentiality that I want is for our family, for our identity to be kept confidential to better protect my two school going children. Whether the media report on the case, we have no question except that we urge the reports must reflect the truth”


An orchestrated campaign

Shanmugam said:

Allegations, implications which are false, practically leading people to conclude that Benjamin committed suicide, as a result.

It is sad to see this level of dishonesty and politicisation of this matter. Where the Police are wrong, we must and will take action. But we should not allow deliberate, dishonest attacks. I have asked my Ministry to study how the Police and other institutions can respond in future to such falsehoods. Others have also commented on this matter. Many of them are honest, reasonable people, who have genuine questions. But as I read the commentaries, it seems that many base themselves on misperceptions of the facts which I had referred to earlier.
 TOC said: 
In all, TOC published a total of 25 articles related to Benjamin’s case and discussion on police procedures. Only four were written in-house. The rest were letters and opinion pieces contributed by members of the public. Benjamin’s story triggered a strong reaction among our readers. This is evident in the number of submissions we received following the first article.

TOC prides itself on being an open platform. We welcome contributions and have very little control over what the public choose to write about. In Benjamin’s case, questions were raised, and people wanted answers. Their reactions were spontaneous. It was hardly an “orchestrated campaign”.

Had the police, Home Affairs or Law Ministries, or anyone from the government written to TOC or responded to our requests for comment, we would have been happy to present their views too. Mr Shanmugum has chosen to characterise our efforts at reaching out as “tactics” to get the police to comment on Benjamin’s case. This is not correct. We believe in giving all sides a chance to speak. Soliciting answers to pressing questions isn’t a “tactic”. It is merely journalism.

Finally, we would like to point out that “inaccuracies” are not the same as “falsehoods”. Given the dearth of information available to us, it is natural that some of our reports were not fully accurate. It would have been clear from our articles that the story was still developing as we were yet to be in possession of the full facts, and we were doing our best to do so with the information we had. We are happy to correct any mistakes we might have made in our articles. However, the word ”falsehoods” implies a deliberate attempt to mislead. TOC rejects any such suggestion.

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