IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

How far does harassment Bill go?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 14, 2014

1 WHAT IS HARASSMENT?

MPs asked what constitutes harassment. Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said there was a need to differentiate between expressions of views and anti-social comments online, while Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) asked if there was a danger of unintentionally criminalising some situations.

Mr Shanmugam: Whether an act amounts to harassment and should be punished will be decided by the courts, which will consider factors such as the nature of the act, the context in which it occurred and the effect it had on the victim.

For all offences under the Bill, reasonableness can be used as a defence.

Also, harassment is already an offence in the Miscellaneous Offences Act. The provisions of the Bill, which are already part of the Act, are therefore not new.

This means the courts here would have previously heard cases dealing with similar issues, and would have established a body of case law that judges can refer to.

2 UNLAWFUL STALKING

On unlawful stalking, the issue of definition was again raised.

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) wondered if journalists staking out near wakes in hopes of interviewing people would be considered stalkers, and Nominated MP Eugene Tan asked about the exception the law has made for surveillance done on behalf of the Government for the sake of national security, for instance.

Mr Shanmugam: The types of acts that can be considered stalking have to be wide ranging, and it is not practicable to try and prescribe beforehand the specific situations it should include.

In drafting the new laws, the Ministry of Law had tried to strike a balance between "certainty", so that people would know what constitutes unlawful stalking, and flexibility, so that various forms of stalking will be caught.

The courts would have to review each case to decide if the alleged stalking in fact did happen, whether it was reasonable in the circumstances and if the alleged victim was being unreasonable.

Exceptions can be granted to those who have to conduct surveillance for national security, national defence or international relations purposes. Examples include operations to do with terrorism or serious crimes.

A certificate will be issued in these cases to exempt the conduct from the Bill, and the key consideration would be what the conduct is for.

3 BULLYING

Bullying among children and teenagers was a concern for many MPs, who asked that more be done to protect them and educate them about cyberbullying. Nominated MP Mary Liew and Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) also wanted to know how the Bill would apply if the bully was a child.

Mr Shanmugam: While the Bill applies equally to children and adults, it is also subject to existing laws governing conduct by juveniles and minors under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) and the rules of court.

So, if a child between the ages of seven to 16 is convicted under the new laws of an offence that attracts a fine or prison term, the court will be allowed to deal with him under the Children and Young Persons Act.

This allows the court to order counselling or probation where appropriate, for example.

The Ministry of Education has existing guidelines to help schools come up with disciplinary procedures for dealing with bullying among students. But it may refine these guidelines for more synergy with the Bill.

A school bullying management kit for all primary and secondary schools has also been developed by the MOE. Targeted at schools and teachers, it provides information on how to identify and respond to bullying.

Protecting children from the ills of online bullying, though, cannot be the job of schools alone. Parents, too, have a role to play.

4 WORKPLACE HARASSMENT

MPs Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) and NMP Eugene Tan voiced concerns over the Bill's coverage of workplace harassment, and discussed educational efforts and the possibility of having workplace guidelines to deal with such conduct.

Mr Shanmugam: The Bill clearly prohibits harassment committed at the workplace; it is broader than that, but workplace harassment is covered. The Ministry of Manpower has been working with NTUC, the Singapore National Employers Federation as well as the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices to address issues of workplace harassment. There are also workshops to better educate employers on these aspects. Protection from harassment has to be an ongoing conversation between many different stakeholders, and it cannot end with this Bill. Other measures such as legislatively requiring employers to institute policies against workplace sexual harassment would have to be part of this conversation, and the feasibility of these will have to be considered.

5 ONLINE OFFENCE

MPs Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) and Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) sought clarifications about the removal of offensive content online, asking how the Bill provides for such removal.

Mr Shanmugam: If the offensive content contravenes certain clauses and a protection order can be made, as part of the protection order, the court can order that no person can publish or continue to publish an offending communication. This would include requiring the removal of the offending content and for there to be no further publication of that content. The protection order can be obtained on an expedited basis, and the expedited protection orders can even be obtained within the same day if the court agrees that it is urgent, and thereafter the publication of the offending communications would be proscribed.

Supposing the offensive content does not cross the threshold set out in the clauses for a protection order to be made or if, for some reason, the victim... wishes to proceed with a lesser remedy, in either of those situations, the victim can obtain a court order under Clause 15 of the Bill to make sure that the falsehood is set right and the true facts are brought out clearly.

yuenc@sph.com.sg

hpeishan@sph.com.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 14, 2014

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