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New harassment law could be enacted soon in S'pore

The proposed new law will cover a range of behaviours, such as sexual harassment within and outside the workplace, cyber-bullying and bullying of children.

SINGAPORE: A new legislation will soon be in place to give better protection to victims of cyber-bullying and stalking.

The Protection from Harassment Bill, to be tabled in Parliament on Monday, will make harassment an offence - both in the physical and online world.

30-year-old "Mary" was a victim of cyber-stalking two years ago.

For two weeks, she was inundated with emails, Facebook messages, and even nasty calls and SMSes from a so-called "admirer".

She said: "He would say in his message, ‘I know where you are now, I know what you are doing’. I felt so scared because I didn't know whether he will come to my office, or come to my house and do something stupid."

The messages and calls stopped when “Mary” changed her number and social media settings.

But till today, “Mary” is still scared, because her stalker knows her, her family, and where she lives.

Corinna Lim, executive director of AWARE, said: "What the woman feels is a sense of helplessness. Sometimes she doesn't go to the police because she doesn't think the police can help.

"And even those cases that go to the police, under the current law, the police don't really have the power to help them."

AWARE handled nine cases of cyber-harassment and 45 cases of sexual harassment last year.

This is up from seven cases of cyber-harassment and 22 cases of sexual harassment in 2012.

Current law under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order & Nuisance) Act are vague when it comes to cyber-bullying and stalking.

Wendell Wong, director of dispute resolution at Drew & Napier, said: "In terms of the current law, there is really no one piece of legislation that criminalises stalking, and criminal intimidation may be at a different threshold and so with this new act, what the law will seek to do is to make clear what that threshold is."

Under the new Bill, stalking, including loitering near a victim's home or messaging the victim every day, will be criminalised.

The new law will make it clear that as long as the act is threatening, abusive, insulting and causes distress to victims, it is harassment - even if it is done online.

Mr Wong said: "In other words, what is not acceptable in the physical world is equally not acceptable in the online world. So what this means is that there will be tools that potential victims can avail themselves to."

As cyber-bullying will be made an offence, the law will strive to strike a balance when it comes to dealing with offenders who are children, who may not know that what they do online may constitute as harassment.

In such cases, the court may issue community orders like psychiatric treatment, counselling or probation.

Mr Wong said: "I think we have to be very sensitive when we approach young offenders and certainly in terms of children and offenders who may still be in school, we would hope and expect that authorities would approach such cases with the right touch.

“But currently, below a certain age, the offenders will go through the juvenile courts so there'll be a different regime, the sort of sanctions that the juvenile court can mete out is certainly different.

"But I think really what we hope to achieve with this new piece of legislation is a sense of awareness and education and we have to be very alive to the dangers of cyber-bullying, especially in schools."

The law will also apply to acts committed from outside Singapore as long as certain conditions are applied – for instance when an offender who is overseas stalks a victim in Singapore and knows that the victim would be in Singapore at the time of the offence.

The existing law protecting public servants will also be extended to those who deliver essential services to the public, including healthcare and public transport staff.

Penalties will also be enhanced to include jail terms.

Where appropriate, the court can issue community orders such as issuing a mandatory treatment order at the Institute of Mental Health.

There will be a wider range of remedies.

For example, the court can issue take-down notices to websites which publish offending material deemed as harassment.

Victims may also apply to the court for protection orders against harassers.

An expedited protection order may be granted in case of emergencies.

A victim who has false facts alleged against him and can prove that the facts are false can also seek redress.

The court can direct suitable notifications which alert readers that the facts are false.

The form of notification will be at the discretion of the courts.

Ms Lim added that she would have liked to see employers roped in for the law that covers sexual harassment at the workplace.

She said: "In other countries where there is a case of workplace sexual harassment, where a complaint has been made, the employer is obliged to investigate and take some action because we know that a lot of victims who are employees will not really feel comfortable... going to court to invoke the civil remedies open to them.

"What they need is a body like the Manpower Ministry to step in, to investigate, if the employer doesn't do anything."

Observers said the new law may be in place by the first half of the year.  

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