Personal privacy and the media

 

I run several online magazines and every once in a while, some displeased individual would write to me and request for a video/photograph/article to be taken down. Threats range from defamation to privacy, annoyingly often misapplying the Personal Data Protection Act.  I have refused each one of these requests.

For me, a good starting point is the constitutional protection of the Freedom of Expression in Article 14: every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression. How far does this freedom go?

14(2) of the Constitution provides that freedom of speech is restrained by laws on national security, international diplomacy, public order, contempt of court, defamation or incites other offences. It is here that the road forks into several different paths.

I will not discuss the matters of national security, international diplomacy, public order, contempt of court and defamation in this article. There are well established precedences and is popular knowledge that the juridicial environment of Singapore considers matters of race, religion and politics to be a very delicate area. Defamation too has much to discuss. Put simply, if you write or repeat words that lower a victim’s standing in society, or expose them to hatred, contempt or ridicule, you could be liable for this wrong. To protect yourself, be sure that your words are true in both substance and fact.

What about the Personal Data Protection Act?

The first thing to understand about this, it is a law to protect “Personal Data”. It protects your personal data in the collection, use and disclosure by organisations. The purpose of the PDPA is to fill a statutory void for the protection of personal data from corporations. It is not strictly speaking, a protection of privacy.

There is no common law protection for torts of privacy in Singapore. It is trite law to restate that privacy remains an interest unprotected by the English law of Torts. However gross the invasion of the plaintiff’s privacy, that violation of privacy is not itself a tort. (Clerk & Lindsell on Torts)

If I take a picture or video of you and report it in a factual story in a publication – this is not a breach of the PDPA. It could be defamatory if I use it in an inappropriate manner. It could be copyright theft, if I acquired the video from a third-party. It could be harassment, if I could satisfy intention. But it certainly isn’t anything to do with the PDPA.

The case law established is further evidence of this. Each case involved a careless management of data in a corporate context; again within the framework of collection, use and disclosure.

To sum up, if you’re running a publication, pay attention to these 4 areas where you could get into trouble with:

  • National security
  • Defamatory words
  • Coypright
  • Harassment (intention to)

If anyone asks you to take down material just because they don’t like it – tell them to get lost, no matter what they threaten you with.

 

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