Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill (Bill No. 11/2019)
Sir, the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) has protected and provided redress for harassment victims. This Bill will amplify these positive effects by making it easier for victims to seek recourse for harassment-related behaviour, and by targeting new social trends such as doxxing and increasing incidences of fake news.
That being said, I would like to make some recommendations to better support victims by improving responses of enforcement personnel, and by increasing use of counselling and mediation. I would also like to seek clarifications on the scope of the new offence of doxxing.
Sensitivity training for enforcement personnel
Sir, sensitivity and tact are needed when assisting victims of harassment to avoid secondary victimisation by law enforcement.
In the online talk show series “Under The Carpet”, Debra Tang highlighted the need to train first responders on the handling of harassment, assault and violence cases.
From her interviews on the show, she noted that, “Too often, victims are made to feel ashamed, foolish, or disbelieved. Many go away wishing they had never made a complaint or reached out for help. And, if it should happen again, they will never speak up.”
It also emerged through the show that there have been instances where victims felt that they were not taken seriously because they may not have exhibited behaviours that law enforcement deem “typical” of assault victims.
The legislative amendments to strengthen protections under POHA will not amount to much without an environment where victims feel safe speaking up.
Training our law enforcement officers to better manage these cases with tact and empathy is crucial in creating such an environment.
Sir, carving out a separate regime in the form of the new Protection from Harassment Courts (PHC) for those who seek help under POHA implicitly recognises that victims of harassment face unique vulnerabilities.
I am aware that changes have been made by the Singapore Police Force to investigative processes and court procedures, in order to create a safer space for victims of sexual crimes. Can Minister confirm if such changes apply also to victims of harassment? Do Victim Care Officers who are specially trained in victim care management also handle victims of harassment?
Strengthening counselling and mediation support for parties
Next, I am heartened that the amendments in this Bill seek to provide quicker relief for victims of harassment by making certain breaches of Protection Orders (POs) and Expedited Protection Orders (EPOs) arrestable offences.
Physically restraining the harasser addresses the immediate threat posed by their harassing behaviour. However, because the harasser will not be detained indefinitely, the victim remains at risk of their harassing behaviour after the harasser is released.
One of my residents had a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against her husband. They were going through a divorce and their relationship was tensed.
The PPO was issued in July 2016. In August, she was repeatedly stabbed by her husband in front of her youngest daughter. She later died of her wounds. Her husband was sentenced to 10 years’ jail but any punishment meted out can never heal the loss of a mother for their two daughters or undo the trauma suffered by the youngest.
The PPO was insufficient to prevent her husband’s attack. While the PPO operates in a separate regime under the Women’s Charter, harassment victims who obtain a PO or EPO under POHA might find themselves in similar threatening situations with a harasser.
Therefore, will the Minister look into immediately attaching a social worker to such cases once a PO or EPO has been issued? A social worker could consistently monitor and assess the case, and identify any worrying irregularities in a harasser’s behaviour in advance to prevent ill-fated cases like that of my resident.
Currently, when ordering POs or EPOs, the Court can include the condition that the respondent and victim attend counselling or mediation. Will the Minister consider making it a mandatory requirement that the Court consider referring counselling and mediation options for parties, and make such an order where appropriate?
Clarification on scope of the offence of doxxing
Lastly, the Bill introduces a new offence of doxxing which signals the Government’s firm commitment towards addressing new and upcoming forms of harassment. This is especially welcomed in a time where online vigilantism is becoming more rampant in our society.
However, there is some ambiguity as to what constitutes doxxing as defined under the Bill. A 2016 incident illustrates this.
In 2016, a story emerged on Facebook of a driver who ran over a dog from a dog shelter and drove off in a hit-and-run. Her vehicle plate number was posted on Facebook with a request for anyone who knew the identity of the driver to text or message a private number. Netizens used the posted plate number to obtain and publish online the woman’s personal particulars.
The car owner and her employer were harassed online by angry netizens. It subsequently emerged that the owner had in fact not been driving the vehicle at the time and did not run over the dog.
This story highlights the dangers of internet vigilantism and the ambiguities in the definition of doxxing as an offence.
Would the initial action of publishing the woman’s vehicle plate number on their Facebook page be considered doxxing?
First, would a vehicle plate number fall under the definition of “identity information”?
The amendments include Illustration (d), which references a situation in which an individual X records a video of Y driving recklessly in a car and posts the video on an online forum.
While Illustration (d) goes on to state that no offence to committed because X posted the video with the intent to warn people to drive defensively, it is not clear from the example whether a vehicle plate number alone would constitute “identity information.
Second, was there intent to cause harm, alarm, or distress in the situation where initially they were simply trying to find out who was driving the car and hit the dog? Could the defence that the conduct was reasonable be raised here? While there was a request for help to identify the driver, it was also expressly stated that the information should be sent to a private number.
This story highlights my broader concern about the difficulty in determining whether there was intention to cause harm, alarm, or distress by the publication of identity information, or whether the conduct was reasonable.
Parliament expressed a preference to leave interpretation of POHA to the Courts as POHA offences are highly dependent on the factual matrix.
The Courts have stated that intention being a thought process can only usually be proved by drawing inferences from the surrounding circumstances and the actions of the accused.
Can Minister shed more light on what the Courts should consider in drawing these inferences?
Further, can more examples of permissible and impermissible publication of identity information be provided either in the Minister’s response or through guidelines or informational material from the Ministry?
This will be helpful for guiding the conduct of the public who should not have to be hauled to Court before finding out whether their actions constitute an offence or not.
Third, regardless of intent, should there be a bright-line prohibition on revealing certain categories of identity information such as NRIC numbers, passport numbers, addresses and phone numbers?
These categories of information are very sensitive and anyone who publishes this information must reasonably know of the risk that the information may be abused by the public in ways that might cause the individual harassment, alarm, or distress. Notwithstanding that the publisher did not expressly or specifically intend to do so, he or she should be taken to have acted in wilful disregard of the risk.
The nature of these categories of information mean that they can be misused for nefarious purposes with particularly devastating consequences for the individual. As such, it might be prudent to prohibit publication of these categories of information regardless of intention.
Sir, notwithstanding the above clarifications, I support this Bill which will better protect and offer redress to victims of harassment.
Watch the speech here
Watch the response by MinLaw here