Will Singapore’s Anti-Harassment Law Curtail Free Speech?

A computer training session in Singapore. Flickr photo by ToGa Wanderings (CC License)

A computer training session in Singapore. Photo by ToGa Wanderings via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Singapore Parliament recently passed the Protection from Harassment Bill which criminalizes cyber harassment, bullying of children, and stalking online. Many welcomed the law but questions were raised about its enforceability and the threat it poses to free speech.

The Ministry of Law explained that the new law updates the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act by protecting citizens from “anti-social” behavior on the Internet. According to a 2012 Microsoft study, Singapore has one of the highest incidences of cyber bullying in the world.

Curiously, the law provided explicit examples of harassment and stalking:

X and Y are classmates. X posts a vulgar tirade against Y on a website accessible to all of their classmates. One of Y’s classmates shows the message on the website to Y, and Y is distressed. X is guilty of an offence.

[...]

These acts are acts associated with stalking of X by Y:

(a) Y repeatedly sends emails to Y’s subordinate (X) with suggestive comments about X’s body.

(b) Y sends flowers to X daily even though X has asked Y to stop doing so.

(c) Y repeatedly circulates revealing photographs of a classmate (X) to other classmates.

A person found guilty of unlawful stalking be fined up to 5,000 Singaporean dollars or a jail term not exceeding 12 months. Repeat offenders may face fines of up to 10,000 Singapore dollars and/or a jail term of no more than two years.

Civil remedies are also available to victims. For instance, they may apply for Protection Orders requiring harassers to desist from causing further harm to them. The Protection Order also requires the harasser or a third party to remove the offending material which caused harassment. If urgent, a petition for Protection Order can be decided within a single day.

Section 15 of the law grants victims of character assassination the right to alert readers that information published about them is false. Walter Woon highlighted the positive impact of this provision:

In plain English, this says that if a false statement is published about someone (the victim), he can apply to the district court for an order that a correction should be published. In other words, victims of falsehood don’t have to grit their teeth and suffer in impotent rage. They can insist that the record be set straight.

I presume that you are fair-minded and not given to vicious anonymous sniper-shots aimed at damaging other people’s characters. In that case, you have nothing to fear. Only liars need worry.

Hri Kumar, a Member of Parliament, believes the law won’t suppress media freedom:

If we agree that a person should be made accountable for causing harm to another by making hurtful statements and uttering falsehoods in the physical world, why should he obtain a free pass because he does it on-line, and anonymously? There are no provisions in the Bill which stifles legitimate criticism and free speech.

But he is worried that the measure might not be effectively implemented:

The Bill does not address the difficulties associated with identifying the perpetrators of cyber abuse. Even though the provisions have been worded to take into account harassment made via online communications, and also to account for offenders in foreign jurisdictions, the cloak of anonymity that cyber-bullies hide behind may prevent the Bill from being effectively enforced.

Another Member of Parliament, Pritam Singh, supports the measure. But he reminded the government that the issue of school bullying can’t be addressed simply by implementing this law:

It is my view that hard law will not succeed in altering norms and behaviour among school-children as compared to sustained education efforts in schools where each student knows how to respond to cases of bullying and harassment instead of being overcome with feelings of guilt and suffering in silence

I do hope we can address the issue of bullying in schools outside the legal domain, with this Bill employed as a last resort on students who are at a stage in their life where mistakes are made and poor judgment is exercised, a reflection of youthful folly.

He also warned that the provision against stalking could be used to undermine the critical work of journalists and bloggers:

I am concerned that the Bill may be subject to abuse especially by individuals who seek to use the law for illegitimate reasons like avoiding or strategically delaying public scrutiny which some journalists or bloggers may seek to pursue.

MP Zaqy Mohammad of the ruling party clarified his conditional support for the measure:

I support this as long as it’s not a tool to be used in any manner to censor information and responsible views, alternative as they may be, on the Internet.

The Association of Women for Action and Research urged the government to simplify the procedure in applying for a protection order:

We hope that the procedure for obtaining protection orders will be easily accessible, as victims should not have to spend large sums on legal fees or navigate complex and intimidating bureaucracy. The effectiveness of the protection order regime will also depend on the willingness of the police to take action against breaches.

IonSG wanted the government to focus more on holistic approaches in order to promote responsible use of the Internet:

There are potential difficulties with regard to the freedom of speech and enforcement, and the attitudes that make such harassment possible are far deeper rooted than the law is able to handle.

Emphasis should be placed on values like tolerance, empathy and respect. Laws can punish those who make disrespectful comments or harass others, but can never instil these values through fear of punishment.

A holistic approach must be taken in order to effectively combat harassment.

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