Friday, 28 February 2014

Proposed anti-harassment law to cover online bullying

Bill to expand and bring legislation for anti-harassment under one roof
By Ian Poh, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2014

A WIDE-RANGING law targeting both online and real-world harassment, including cyber bullying and stalking, will be tabled in Parliament next Monday.

Sexual harassment in and out of the office will be included, along with stalking, which is being introduced as an offence. The proposed law will also cover some acts which originate overseas.

Not only will there be tougher sanctions for offenders, who can be ordered to seek treatment at the Institute of Mental Health, but victims are also given new remedies with the proposed Bill.

They include court protection orders which require harassers to stop doing anything to cause further harm. Victims can also ask the court to order the removal of offending material online, or make offenders put an alert highlighting the inaccurate parts.

Yesterday's announcement by the Law and Home Affairs ministries on the Bill came just over three months after Law Minister K. Shanmugam unveiled plans by the Government to clamp down on such anti-social behaviour.

Last November, he highlighted a 2012 Microsoft study of 25 countries which said Singapore had the second-highest rate of online bullying behind China among young people aged eight to 17.

A government poll last October also showed more than 80 per cent here believed online harassment was a serious issue and that there should be tougher measures to deal with it.

Other countries which have enacted specific laws to protect people from online harassment include Britain and India.

MP Hri Kumar Nair, who is also chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, welcomed the new Bill, saying traditional laws do not take into account the harm that could be caused through the Internet.

"This is a step in the right direction," he said.

Lawyer Abraham Vergis, who is on the Law Reform Committee's sub-committee for harassment, added that the Bill improves "access to justice".

Other provisions in the anti-harassment Bill include extending protection to workers who deliver essential services, such as public health care and transport.

The Law and Home Affairs ministries said yesterday that they consulted extensively with stakeholders, including women's group Aware, the Singapore Children's Society and lawyers of harassment victims, in coming up with the Bill.

Assistant Professor Goh Yihan of the National University of Singapore law faculty said the legislation helps victims as it consolidates protection "scattered" across various legislation, such as the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act and Criminal Procedure Code.

But the effectiveness of the new Bill, he added, lies in educating victims on its provisions.

Wide-ranging law to tackle harassment proposed
Standalone Act to be tabled on Monday will cover various types of offensive behaviour
By Amir Hussain, TODAY, 27 Feb 2014

A wide-ranging law that will give victims of harassment civil remedies and issue offenders with various criminal sanctions will be tabled in Parliament on Monday — three months after it was mooted and views from the public were sought.

The move was first flagged by Law Minister K Shanmugam during a conference on harassment organised by the Institute of Policy Studies in November last year, when he cited a worldwide study by Microsoft in 2012 that showed Singapore to be one of six countries where bullying among youth aged eight to 17 was particularly pervasive.

He also cited a poll of Singaporeans aged above 15, where eight in 10 felt that online harassment was a serious issue, with almost 90 per cent calling for offenders to be punished under the law.

Under the range of remedies proposed in the Protection From Harassment Act, a victim can get expedited Protection Orders to force his harasser to desist from further acts that harm him, or a third party to remove offending materials causing harassment. A court can also order anyone who publishes false facts about another person to publish alerts about the falsehoods. Those who commit harassment can also be sued for damages.

A spectrum of offensive or anti-social behaviours are also classified as offences, including sexual harassment both in and outside workplaces, verbal harassment, cyber-bullying, as well as the bullying of children.

Stalking will be against the law too, if the perpetrator causes harassment, alarm or distress, the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said yesterday.

Protection for public servants will also be extended to those who deliver essential services to the general public, such as those working in public healthcare and public transport, it added.

Under the proposed Bill, those who harass from outside Singapore will also get into trouble, so long as the victim is in Singapore and the perpetrator knew or ought to have known that when he committed these acts.

Meanwhile, existing penalties for harassment offences will be enhanced to reflect their seriousness, with repeat offenders facing heavier punishments. The court will also be empowered to make community orders in appropriate cases.

The decision to enact a standalone omnibus legislation was taken after public feedback, although the authorities had initially intended to tweak existing laws such as the Miscellaneous Offences Act to cover the various offending behaviours, the ministry added.

Currently, the legal remedies for harassment are specific and do not cover general conduct. For instance, the Moneylenders Act covers harassment in the context of moneylending, while the Women’s Charter covers harassment in the context of family violence.

The proposed Bill was drawn up after consultations with stakeholders, said MinLaw. These included the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the Singapore Children’s Society and the Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth (CABCY). Lawyers who have represented victims of harassment, victims and academics were also consulted.

Despite the range of behaviours covered under the proposed law, lawyers did not feel it was too broad.

Mr Choo Zheng Xi, one of the lawyers consulted, said it provides a much-needed remedy for individuals who are being cyber-harassed as well as stalked. He added that the way harassment cases are dealt with in court under the proposed statute should not be too different, given the existing case law on the definition of harassment under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.

Asked if there would be a surge in the applications for Protection Orders with the proposed new law, lawyer Abraham Vergis said it is hard to tell how the public will take up the new remedies.

Lawyers also did not feel the new statute promoted censorship, for example, as a way to curb critical speech against public figures when the writer did not go as far as to commit defamation. Mr Choo said, of his consultation with MinLaw: “I emphasised the need to strike a balance between an effective and accessible set of remedies for ordinary persons to seek the protection of, while at the same time making clear that the object of this Bill is not to curb critical speech of public figures. In my view, that objective has been met.”

Media analyst Ang Peng Hwa, who has also seen a draft of the Bill, added: “As long as you don’t abuse people, don’t insult or threaten, I don’t see how you will be caught by the law.”

When contacted, CABCY, which proposed the prompt removal of harassing content, said it welcomed the Bill. “Victims need to have the assurance that the content would be removed and they could close the chapter and move on without worrying or fear that the contents posted by the perpetrator would resurface,” it said.

CABCY added that it also suggested “a mandatory anti-bullying policy across all schools”, instead of punitive sanctions by law. “Clear direction and guidelines on how a reported case of bullying will be managed ... will give all children, youth, their family, school administrators, teachers, counsellors and staff a crystal clear idea on what to expect and what they can do about bullying behaviours.”

Separately, AWARE said it welcomed the strengthening of civil legal remedies for harassment victims but called for the proposed Bill to be expanded, or the Employment Act to be amended, to require employers to address workplace sexual harassment.

The women’s rights group also urged the Manpower Ministry to “mandate and enforce a detailed code of conduct specifically setting out best practices for employers on preventing workplace sexual harassment and processing harassment complaints”.

New Bill could change ways of behaviour
But experts say it depends on how well harassment law can be enforced
By Rachel Au-Yong and Vanessa Chng, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2014

THE new anti-harassment law could lead to a big change in the way people conduct themselves at work, in school and online.

But experts say a lot depends on how well the Protection from Harassment Bill, which will be introduced in Parliament next Monday, can be enforced.

By including Internet behaviour, and tougher fines and jail terms, the law shows "clear-cut rules on what is right and wrong", said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.

She referred to recent cases of online vigilantism, in which netizens dug up and revealed personal information of certain people, such as British expatriate Anton Casey after he denigrated public transport users, and a vet who put down a healthy puppy named Tammy last year.

"Sometimes a mob reacts when law enforcement fails but, in doing so, crosses over to the dark side," she said. "The new law sends a message to all Singaporeans that there are certain behaviours that are not acceptable."

Full-time national serviceman Gan Chin Boon, a victim of cyber bullying, believes the new law will empower more people to take action against bullies.

The 19-year-old related how some of his posts, including those on his A-level results, became the target of ridicule on a Facebook group. "I asked the group's administrators to take down the post but they refused," he said.

"I think the new law will prevent that."

But experts wonder how many of the proposed provisions can be enforced, such as the one allowing victims to apply to the courts to remove false information online.

A 34-year-old teacher at a Bukit Timah school who has dealt with bullying cases said: "What is this dedicated body that can magically remove things from the World Wide Web? Even if you could, the damage is done."

Women's rights group Aware said it welcomed the recognition of harassment and stalking as serious problems, but was disappointed the legislation did not cover employers who turn a blind eye.

In Britain and Canada, employers can be held liable if they are aware of a sexual harassment case and do not act on it.

"I don't think it's too much to ask for an employer, when it knows there's a problem, to step in," Aware chief executive Corinna Lim said.

Harassment is also currently a non-seizable offence, which means that the police cannot arrest the suspect immediately without a warrant.

To seek redress, the victim must complain to a magistrate who can then instruct the police to investigate. This can be costly, time-consuming and emotionally draining, said Ms Lim.

"The police currently act on harassment cases on a discretionary basis and, more often than not, they don't investigate," she added.

The law has its heart in the right place, but a more successful transformation will come through education, said Professor Straughan.

"Policing individual cases can be very pricey for the state. It is more fruitful for families to teach children the difference between speaking your mind and bullying, and how to stand up for themselves."

Recent cases of online vigilantism


Briton Anton Casey, who was working in Singapore, suffered online abuse after posting derisive remarks about public transport users.

Cyber vigilantes published personal details of the Casey family, including their home address and cellphone numbers online.

Mr Casey and his family fled to Perth.


The vet involved in putting down a puppy named Tammy, which was said to be aggressive, was labelled a "puppy murderer" by netizens.

Some posted her photo online, revealed her workplace and called for a boycott of the clinic. There was talk of activists going to the clinic to confront her.

Law creeping up on stalkers spells relief
By Jalelah Abu Baker, MyPaper, 27 Feb 2014

FORMER journalist Joanne Lee received flowers for her birthday in 2009. They were not from a friend, but a stalker.

For two years from 2008, Ms Lee's stalker would leave her multiple voicemail messages, send her letters, and sometimes call her "wifey". It took a court case to end the harassment.

Another victim is not as lucky. His stalker of 14 years is still at large.

To provide relief to victims of all kinds of harassment, a Bill is being tabled in Parliament.

For the first time, stalking, whether in the real world or online, will constitute an offence that will carry harsh penalties.

Called the Protection from Harassment Bill, it seeks to "better protect people from harassment and related anti-social behaviour", the ministries of Law and Home Affairs said.

Even a course of action that is seemingly benign, but causes distress, can be considered an offence under the Bill, said Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Law Beh Swan Gin. He gave the example of being delivered roses at the office table every day to the point of it being "scary".

The Bill, to be read in Parliament by Law Minister K. Shanmugam next week, will also protect people against sexual harassment at the workplace and bullying.

These offences are covered under the current Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, but the upcoming one will replace them in a clearer way.

There will be civil remedies and criminal sanctions available to victims.

For example, victims may apply to the courts for a Protection Order, and should there be urgency, an Expedited Protection Order may be granted even before a hearing is held.

Ms Corinna Lim, the executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), said that the Bill would be useful because most victims really just want the harassment to stop.

"This is going to give them an affordable and administratively simple tool to stop the harassment," she said.

The courts will also have the authority to make the harasser or third parties, like Facebook and Instagram, remove offending material like nude photographs and hurtful posts.

Even offenders who are overseas will not be able to escape. The identities of anonymous harassers online may also be investigated.

An online moniker or username may be enough to get a Protection Order, said Ms Thian Yee Sze, director-general of the legal group at the ministry.

When it comes to sexual harassment at the workplace, Ms Lim added that some of the responsibility must fall on employers to stop it.

Criminal lawyer Amolat Singh said that the Bill would be a "marked improvement" over the current law, and that it would be more targeted legislation.

He added that it would be able to provide "immediate first aid" to victims.

One phone call, 14 years of hell
By Jalelah Abu Baker, MyPaper, 27 Feb 2014

AN INNOCENT chat with a woman in 2000 turned the next 14 years of one man's life into a living hell.

He is now hoping that a new Bill against harassment will put an end to it.

The woman said she was a real-estate agent. The man, a bachelor, chatted with her for a while.

The next week, she turned up at his doorstep and offered him a lift to work. Then the next, and the next. He accepted her offers each time because, he said, "Why not?"

"It never occurred to me how she knew I would be home at that particular time," the man, now aged 67 and a retiree, told MyPaper.

One day, she kissed him by his front door. They were about to have sex when she asked him to prove that he was free from Aids.

They argued and he "shoved her out the door".

"That was when the trouble started," the man said.

She has stalked him ever since, inundating him with thousands of anonymous phone calls - and even contacting his new female friends to slander him.

"I tried changing my number numerous times, but somehow she always got hold of my number," he said.

She once knew his new number even before it was activated.

He tried reporting the case to police, but nothing could be done at that time.

She would call him in the middle of the night and disturb his sleep, and send him e-mail from various addresses.

She even contacted his friends, their wives and his employers.

"She e-mailed them and told them that I was a rapist," he said.

Once, she even called when he was making a police report. He handed the phone over to the officer. Again, she alleged that he was a rapist, but did not make a police report.

She watched him when he went out. "She would call me and say things like 'I see you are in green today'," he said.

It was mental torture, he said, and he gave up hope of avoiding her.

Over the last year or two, the calls and messages have been reduced. But he is already 67 years old and says that the Bill that makes stalking an offence is "long overdue". He has suffered too long.

"If she starts again, I will report her," he said.

A power play with sexual overtones
By Jalelah Abu Baker, MyPaper, 27 Feb 2014

ANEWLY proposed law, which will specifically make harassment an offence, has put the spotlight on what seems to be a widespread phenomenon - sexual harassment at work, an issue that has been kept largely under wraps.

In most cases, the balance of power is skewed, said experts MyPaper interviewed. The victims are usually young and inexperienced, and the culprit, typically a senior colleague abusing his authority.

And, more often than not, the victims hesitate to report the incident for fear of losing their jobs and being ridiculed.

Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), said that the victims are mostly women, and that they are likely to be young and just starting work.

Mr Alvin Ang, who owns a recruiting company, said the problem is both serious and common.

"The harasser, whether male or female, uses his power, and the victim is helpless. Companies would rather let the powerless person go," he said.

An Aware survey in 2008 of more than 500 people found that more than half had faced some form of sexual harassment at the workplace.

Aware handled 45 calls from people being harassed at the workplace last year, but many cases go unreported. Rather than stir what they think is "trouble", most would rather leave their jobs, said Ms Lim.

Associate Professor Ravi Chandran, who teaches employment law at the National University of Singapore's Business School, said: "The employee may be fearful that he may lose the job if he does complain, especially when the harasser is a superior."

But harassment is widespread, going by accounts from victims MyPaper spoke to:

In one case, a woman who did not get her bonus approached the general manager of her company for redress, only to have him lunge at her for a kiss.

She refused, but this went on for a year until she decided to leave the company.

In another case, a senior staff member, aged about 50 and seconded to Singapore from a London office, would e-mail a junior colleague incessantly, inviting her to his office under the ruse of "career guidance".

He tried the tactic with several women, and had even sought to force one of them to go with him to Thailand by booking tickets for her, and asking her to stay in his hotel room.

A manager would send messages inviting an intern home when his wife was not around, and ask her out in the middle of the night, cautioning her to go alone.

Victims in smaller firms may find it more difficult to get help, said Mr Ang. More often than not, the company may be controlled by one boss, who may be the harasser.

With the new Bill, those who have been harassed can apply to the courts for protection orders against their harassers. The offence will carry harsh penalties.

But experts said that the Bill may not be effective unless victims feel protected enough to come forward to report the incidents. Here is where employers come in.

OCBC has general guidelines against harassment and bullying, while auditing firm Ernst and Young targets sexual harassment specifically - including subtle behaviours.

The Ministry of Manpower said that workshops have been held to educate employers on how to handle grievances properly. The policy should be communicated to all staff and action taken against perpetrators.

And it's not always a hopeless battle. Mr Ang recalled one case in which a client called him shortly after being placed in a company to tell him of the harassment she was facing.

Her senior had made her stay late so they could work alone and had touched her waist on one occasion.

Mr Ang then called the company's human-resources staff, who investigated and fired the manager.

What clinched the matter was the firm fearing for its reputation if a police report was made. There's light at the end of the tunnel.

Bill 'unlikely to wipe out online harassment'
But proposed expansion of law will give courts more teeth, say lawyers
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 1 Mar 2014

THE proposed expansion of anti-harassment laws will give courts more teeth to act against the most serious online threats, but lawyers have warned that rogue behaviour online is unlikely to be eradicated.

Under the Protection from Harassment Bill, which will be tabled in Parliament next Monday, a victim who can prove that there are "false facts" alleged against him online can ask the court to direct the harasser or website owner to notify other readers about the untruths.

The court can also give a protection order requiring the harasser - even if he posts anonymously - to remove the offending material, including that on websites hosted overseas.

What gives the proposed laws more muscle is that if the harasser does not comply with the protection order, he could face a fine and go to jail.

"It's a step in the right direction," said lawyer and MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Christopher de Souza.

"When we were debating the Penal Code in 2007, we were already aware of how the Internet was being used to manipulate the vulnerable.

"This is an extension of that realisation, and I support it. The prevalence of online bullying needs to be dealt with head-on."

Said law professor and Media Literacy Council chairman Tan Cheng Han: "Online harassment can be just as bad (as real-world harassment), because it can both spread and induce others to gang up against the victim... It is its wide reach that gives it its particular sting."

But the kind of mob mentality that besieged road bully Quek Zhen Hao and the vet who put down a healthy puppy named Tammy will probably not go away, said Professor Tan.

Both of them had to endure insults on their Facebook pages, while self-styled vigilantes plastered their personal addresses and photographs on online forums in a process sometimes dubbed "CSI", after the TV series Crime Scene Investigation.

"I don't think all online 'CSI work' will stop because some of it will be equivalent to whistle-blowing and unlikely to amount to harassment," said Prof Tan.

He added: "In other cases, it may be difficult to prove that what was put up was intended to disturb, annoy or upset the subject, as the person posting the information may claim that there is a public interest objective in flagging bad behaviour."

There is also the issue of enforceability, said social media lawyer Lionel Tan, of law firm Rajah & Tann. "It's impossible to go through all 1,000 people if they spam someone's wall on a one-off basis," he said.

"Only those who continually barrage the victim or make threats to his physical well-being will be taken to task, and perhaps the ringleader, if he can be proven to have instigated everyone else."

Lawyers also said that it will remain to be seen how cyberbullying involving children will be handled in a court of law.

This is because there are questions over how the law can take minors to task. According to a poll conducted by local cyberwellness firm Kingmaker Consultancy last year, a third of 1,800 students aged 13 to 14 said they had been targets of cyberbullying.

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