What if netizens get it wrong?

SINGAPORE'S cyber communities are abuzz with speculation regarding the identity of the 'mystery' woman linked to the former SCDF and CNB chiefs, who are being investigated by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

But what if netizens get it wrong? Their online postings, if found to be untrue, could land them in trouble for defamation.

Lawyers told The New Paper that the rules of defamation apply to both online and mainstream outlets.

In mainstream journalism, an editor is ultimately held responsible.

Similiarly, in cyberspace, the responsibility must be prescribed to the moderator or creator of that post.

Mainstream media, being more aware of the consequences of defamation, are more careful about using information that could land them in trouble, while there is often more of a "wild west" mentality on the Internet.

Defamation, which can be either spoken (slander) or published (libel), occurs when someone falsely accuses another person of immoral, illegal or unethical conduct and damages that person's reputation in the eyes of others.

"If the information made public in either newspapers or on Internet forums is proven to be untrue, then it is defamatory and thus grounds for legal action," said lawyer Ramesh Tiwari.

Identifying those who defame

"Given that the information is made through Internet channels, the next step would be to get the identity of the person who first made that allegation."

Even if the posts are anonymous, there are ways to trace the creators by such means as finding out their IP addresses.

Lawyer Edmond Pereira said that if the pictures in the postings are of innocent persons and used without permission, those who made the posts could be charged with criminal defamation.

For criminal defamation, one can be jailed up to two years and fined.

Said Mr Pereira: "If you can locate the person who made those claims, they can be charged once you have shown the authorities that their allegations are not true.

"But first, you have to track him down - not an easy thing, especially if the web server used by the forums are based overseas."

Online speculation has been rife of late about the unnamed woman who allegedly had relationships with former SCDF chief Peter Lim and former CNB chief Ng Boon Gay.

But netizens who make unproven claims online could also find themselves in trouble, said lawyer Amolat Singh.

"Whatever information posted online will go viral and is potentially damaging; that is the nature of the Internet," he said.

This article was first published in The New Paper.