As technology pervades more and more aspects of our lives, it has also opened up new avenues for people to commit heinous acts while remaining hidden behind a façade. Consequently, cyberbullying, also known as online bullying, has emerged as a growing concern in today’s society.
According to a Microsoft survey conducted in 2012, Singapore has the second-highest rate – 58% – of online bullying worldwide. More recently, a 2018 survey commissioned by Mediacorp programme Talking Point revealed that 3 in 4 youngsters had previously been bullied online.
But all this begs the question: so what is the definition of “cyberbullying”?
What is Cyberbullying?
According to the Ministry of Education, cyberbullying refers to:
“Any behaviour performed through electronic or digital media by individuals or groups that communicate hostile or aggressive messages intended to inflict harm or discomfort over time against a victim.”
There are eight common forms of cyberbullying, namely:
- Flaming – using provocative words against a person in a hostile online interaction;
- Harassment – continually sending vicious messages to an individual;
- Cyber Stalking – ongoing online harassment and denigration that causes a person to fear for his/her safety, e.g. via threatening messages;
- Denigration – sending rumours or untruths to hurt a person’s reputation;
- Impersonation – posting offensive messages under another’s name;
- Trickery – fooling someone into sharing personal information which is then posted online;
- Outing – posting confidential or embarrassing information about a person; and
- Exclusion – purposely excluding someone from an online group.
There are varying degrees of severity within each of these eight forms of cyberbullying, the more severe of which would cross into the field of criminal law. One such example is the malicious posting of untrue information on another person’s character, which could fall under the offence of defamation.
How Can the Law Help?
It is key to note from the outset that the Singapore High Court has held that “bullying” is “not a legal term of art” – in other words, the phenomenon of bullying in and of itself does not afford a victim any legal recourse.
However, civil and criminal remedies for acts which amount to bullying – such as repeatedly harassing, stalking or spreading false rumours about someone – do exist. Hence, while you may not be able to sue someone for “bullying” in general, you may be able to sue the same person for one of the specific acts of bullying.
The difference between a civil and a criminal remedy is that a civil remedy generally involves you suing another party for personal compensation. In contrast, a criminal remedy usually entails the offender being given a fine and/or a jail sentence.
Should something be considered a criminal offence, you are unlikely to be able to sue the individual responsible as that might punish the offender twice – once in criminal law and once in civil law – for the same act.
Nevertheless, for any offence, the court is still required to consider giving an order for monetary compensation to the victim on conviction of an offender if a suitable amount of compensation can be determined.
Should the cyberbullying be in its early stages, or if the extent of bullying is relatively tolerable, you may wish to consider mediating the issue. This solution is generally cheaper compared to other legal remedies.
Moreover, mediation takes place in a confidential and less formal setting – there is no need to go to court. This hence provides individuals with an opportunity to mend relationships privately without unwanted publicity or embarrassment.
Mediation sessions are usually conducted at the Community Mediation Centre (CMC). However, only cases involving interpersonal relations are suitable for mediation at the CMC. Hence, mediation may only be a viable solution if the cyberbullying stems from one of the following groups of people:
- Family members;
- Friends; and
You may wish to refer to our article on mediation for more information here.
If both sides are unable to reach a consensus, however, the matter may still proceed to court. In such a scenario, you may wish to consider pursuing other courses of action listed below.
Applying for a Protection Order (PO)
Another path that may be open to you is to apply for a Protection Order (PO) under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). A PO protects victims from harassment that has occurred in the past or likely to occur in the future.
With technology allowing individuals to take on false personas and impersonate others, it will also be of greater assurance to cyberbullying victims that POs can still be taken out against online users even if they appear to be anonymous. This is as long as the person is identifiable via a username.
More details on applying for a PO can be found in our other article.
Suing for defamation
On the facts, defamation may be present in most cyberbullying incidents. This is because at its core, the law on defamation is concerned with protecting an individual whose reputation has been harmed by another’s words.
Read our other article for a more thorough discussion of online defamation and its respective elements.
Suing for unlawful stalking
Section 7 of the POHA addresses the act of unlawful stalking. This includes not just physically following a particular victim, but also the publishing of social media posts portraying an individual in a negative light – which occurs in many cyberbullying cases.
Of the eight categories of cyberbullying mentioned above, unlawful stalking would fall under the category of cyberstalking.
For more information, read our article on unlawful stalking in Singapore.
Certain forms of cyberbullying may be punishable by a jail term and/or a fine if they become criminal offences. In such cases, you can consider making a police report in relation to the specific offence instead of suing the person responsible.
Defamation is also a criminal offence under section 499 of the Penal Code. As long as it can be shown that the defamer intended, or knew, or had reason to believe his words would harm the reputation of the victim, the defamer may be jailed for up to 2 years and/or fined.
Apart from being sued by an individual, unlawful stalking under POHA also allows for an accused person to be prosecuted under criminal law. First-time offenders will be liable to up to a $5,000 fine and/or up to 12 months’ jail, while repeat offenders will be liable to up to a $10,000 fine and/or up to 2 years’ jail.
The offence of criminal intimidation under section 503 of the Penal Code makes it illegal to threaten someone to:
- Cause them alarm;
- Cause them to do something that they were not legally required to do; or
- Cause them to not do something they were legally entitled to do.
Past cyberbullying-related cases of criminal intimidation usually involved a threat to make public the victim’s nude photos if the victim refused to comply with the perpetrator’s demands, which are typically of a sexual nature.
For instance, in PP v Mani Velmurugan, the offender threatened to post nude photos of at least 17 women online unless they had sex with him, and was sentenced to a total of 32 months’ imprisonment for 9 charges of criminal intimidation.
If found guilty of criminal intimidation, a person may be imprisoned for up to 2 years and/or fined. If, however, the threat is to cause death or grievous hurt, or impute unchastity to a woman, a person may face harsher punishment including an imprisonment term of up to 10 years and/or a fine, such as in the case of PP v Mani Velmurugan.
Read our other article for more information on the offence of criminal intimidation in Singapore.
Transmission of obscene images electronically
If someone posted obscene images of another person online, they could be found guilty of the offence of transmitting obscene images electronically under section 292 of the Penal Code. The maximum punishment for this offence is a fine or up to 3 months’ jail, or both.
In January this year, a man pleaded guilty to criminal intimidation and transmission of obscene images for threatening to leak a maid’s nude photos online if she refused to get into a relationship with him, and subsequently leaking the photos.
He was jailed for 4 months for both offences.
In May this year, Parliament passed a Bill to update the POHA, which included the introduction of a new offence called “doxxing.”
As defined by MinLaw, “doxxing” refers to the publication of a victim’s personal information with the intention of harassing, threatening or abusing him/her. This includes any photos or videos which identify the individual or his/her family.
Due to the broad nature of the term, those found guilty of doxxing may face varying degrees of punishment depending on the severity of their offence. At the lower end of the spectrum, individuals who intentionally cause harassment, alarm or distress can be fined up to $5,000 or be jailed up to 6 months, or both.
Those found guilty of creating fear or provocation of violence, however, face tougher punishment for such more serious acts, and can be fined up to $5,000 or be jailed up to 12 months, or both.
For more information on what constitutes doxxing and the penalties for this offence, you may wish to refer to our article on doxxing laws in Singapore.
Can the Cyberbully Still be Held Liable If They are Overseas?
Under the Penal Code, it is immaterial whether or not the offence was committed within or beyond Singapore. In the latter case, the offender will be liable for the same punishment(s) had the offence been committed within Singapore.
However, it is generally harder to prosecute overseas offenders due to the need to go through extradition – that is, the formal process by which an accused person who is overseas is handed back to Singapore. This is because although Singapore has extradition treaties or arrangements with various countries, these are subject to fairly restrictive conditions.
For the extradition of persons from Commonwealth countries (e.g. Australia and Canada), for example, these persons must be accused or convicted of an “extraditable crime.” However, cyberbullying, or any acts amounting to cyberbullying, are currently not on that list.
For other countries which do not have an extradition agreement with Singapore, Singapore may still request to extradite the person, but the possibility of being rejected remains open.
Hence, while a cyberbully may still be liable for punishment even though they are located overseas, actually convicting the cyberbully is an entirely different – and possibly difficult – matter. If extradition is not a viable avenue, such persons may only be arrested if they happen to set foot in Singapore.
In short, the message behind the slew of remedies mentioned above is clear – that you should not have to suffer alone in silence.
Technology should be used to improve lives, rather than turned into a tool for pernicious means, and the introduction of the new offence of doxxing merely underlines the severity of behaviour amounting to cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying touches on a relatively new and complex area of law which is still developing, and which many are still grappling with the nuances and implications of. You are advised to get in touch with a lawyer if you need legal advice on your situation.