Childcare centre's suit against SPH dismissed (ST)

BackAug 13, 2009

THE High Court has thrown out a defamation lawsuit brought by a childcare centre against Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

In his judgment released yesterday, Justice Lee Seiu Kin said that although certain parts of the report titled "13-month-old boy critically ill in hospital" defamed the Al-Amin Education company, the publisher had acted without malice and in the public interest.

The report, by senior health correspondent Salma Khalik and published in The Straits Times on May 23 last year, highlighted the condition of toddler Muhammad Hafiz Badrulhisham, who contracted hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD).

Al-Amin took issue with the report as it had stated that the boy's mother, Madam Jamaiedah Mustafa, said that her son probably caught the bug from his cousin, who attends the Al-Amin Education Centre in Tampines.

Madam Jamaiedah also said she was upset that the centre did not inform parents that it had some children down with HFMD.

Al-Amin said it had been defamed because readers would conclude that it did not take measures to protect its students against HFMD.

The centre would be seen as negligent in allowing the disease to spread.

It was suing for unspecified damages as its reputation had been tarnished by the report.

In the two-day hearing in April, the centre's lawyer Anthony Netto argued that there was no evidence the cousin caught the disease at the kindergarten and was the one who infected Muhammad Hafiz.

The centre had also taken all reasonable steps to notify parents of infections among students, he said.

While not disputing that Ms Khalik's two calls to the centre went unanswered, Al-Amin said that the statement that it could not be reached for comment before the report was published indicated that it tried to avoid the press intentionally.

Lawyers from Allen & Gledhill, acting for SPH, denied there was any defamation and even if there was, there was justification or qualified privilege to run the report.

Agreeing, Justice Lee said that since HFMD was prevalent among infants below the age of five and was reaching epidemic levels at that time, it was in the public interest that the report be published.

The judge also noted that Ms Khalik had received an e-mail from the Ministry of Health on May 22.

This update on the HFMD situation had mentioned the case of a 13-month- old boy with suspected encephalitis who had been in contact with a cousin attending a kindergarten with an active HFMD cluster.

The boy, as it turned out, was Muhammad Hafiz.

"Seen in this light, there is no doubt in my mind that the press release in fact formed the impetus of the article," wrote Justice Lee.

The MOH update was also prominently marked, "For immediate release", and SPH ran the report the next day.

There was no malice and the judge noted that Ms Khalik testified she positively believed that Madam Jamaiedah was telling the truth when she complained that the centre failed to inform parents of its HFMD cases.