On 5 February 2015, well-known local blogger Xiaxue obtained a court order against the satirical SMRT Ltd (Feedback) Facebook page after being at the receiving end of malicious posts since 2012. This court order was obtained pursuant to the Protection From Harassment Act which came into force in November 2014. This Act was enacted so as to protect people from being the targets of harassment or stalking, whether online or in real life.
Criminal offences under the Act
Harassment, alarm and distress
The new Act provides for the criminalisation of certain harassing behaviour. For example, a person who acts in such a way (whether by behaviour, words or other forms of communication) as to cause another person harassment, alarm or distress, will be guilty of an offence. The offence is even more severe if the harasser had actually intended the victim to react in such a manner.
The Act provides an example of harassment involving two co-workers in a workplace named X and Y: X loudly and graphically describes X’s desire to have a sexual relationship with Y to other co-workers in an insulting manner, while knowing that Y can hear this and intending to cause Y distress. If Y does in fact feel distress, X has committed an offence.
Fear or provocation of violence
Under the Act, it is also an offence to intentionally cause someone to believe, or behave in a manner where such a person is likely to believe, that unlawful violence will be used against him. This offence is to be contrasted with the one above as there is a threat of physical violence while harassment, alarm or distress are non-physical forms of harm.
Unlawful stalking is made an offence under the Act. Examples of acts of unlawful stalking include following someone, loitering in areas near his home or business, giving or leaving gifts, and keeping someone under surveillance. For example, the repeated circulation of revealing photographs of a classmate to other classmates will be considered unlawful stalking under the Act.
For all offences, persons found guilty will be fined up to $5,000, or fined and/or jailed for up to 12 months. The penalties for repeated offenders are harsher, with potential fines increasing to $10,000 and jail terms extending for up to 2 years, depending on the severity of the offence.
In defence however, a person accused of the above offences may attempt to absolve himself of criminal liability by e.g. proving that his behaviour had been reasonable.
Apart from criminal punishment, a harasser may also be sued by the victim in court in a civil action for damages. The victim may also apply for a protection order to prevent the harasser from continuing his unwanted behaviour or communication.
In addition, a person about whom false statements of fact have been made can apply for a court order to prohibit the further publishing of such statements. The court order will be granted unless the statement maker publishes a notice bringing attention to the falsity of his own statements and also the true facts.
Finally, in certain situations, the harasser will not be able to escape the long arm of the law even if he is outside of Singapore, e.g. in cyberbullying cases where the perpetrators are overseas. In relation to causing harassment, alarm or distress for example, the Singapore court will still be able to hear the action even if the offender was outside of Singapore if the victim was in Singapore and the offender knew, or had reason to believe this, when subjecting the victim to harassing behaviour.
For more details, refer to the Protection From Harassment Act.
This article is contributed by Tan Siew Ann.