Mar 10, 2014

    Hope for harassment victims but enforcement is key

    THE Bill proscribing harassment is a good first step towards protecting victims of harassment, whose tormentors often know they are well beyond the long arm of the law.

    Over the past few years, I have interviewed and written about more than 20 harassment and stalking victims, who expressed frustration at the limited legal recourse available to them.

    Some were stalked by spurned suitors; some were harassed by bosses at work. Others were working professionals, framed, flamed and left helpless online. One was as young as 15.

    Take the 30-something logistics executive whose spurned suitor repeatedly turned up in the middle of the night begging her to open the door. She lives alone and moved house twice, but each time, he found out where she was staying. He even taunted her by leaving phone messages saying that the law could not touch him.

    Then there was the breadwinner working for a boss who headed his own firm. His sexual jokes and innuendos morphed over time into outright indecent proposals. He knew full well that she needed her job because her husband was unemployed and the family was in debt.

    Finally, there was the single mother whose former boyfriend kept turning up at her workplace to complain loudly about how she had jilted him. He called her bosses relentlessly and followed her everywhere, including to her clients' offices. She lost her job.

    Men, women and children in similar straits will soon receive greater protection under the proposed legislation, which is being debated in Parliament this week.

    There are many reasons to applaud the Bill. First, it makes stalking an offence. It also expressly proscribes cyber harassment, hitherto a grey area in the law.

    Second, by increasing penalties, introducing jail terms and, indeed, creating a stand-alone law, the Government has sent a strong signal to perpetrators and law enforcement agencies that harassment is a crime and must be taken seriously.

    Third - and crucially for victims - the Bill offers a range of options that a victim can take to stop harassment. They include swift take-down orders and published correction notifications in the case of false and malicious online content.

    Also, victims can apply to the courts for protection orders requiring the harassment to stop. This mirrors existing instruments used to protect victims of domestic violence and plugs a key gap in the law. So far, such orders can be taken out only against family members.

    But as with any new law, enforcement is key. While the spirit of the proposed law is noble, the devil is indeed in the details.

    One potential pitfall lies in the area of cyber harassment. The Bill allows for protection and take-down orders to be taken out against someone who uses an Internet pseudonym. Breaching a protection order is a criminal offence punishable with a fine of up to $5,000 and up to six months' jail.

    But it remains to be seen how this will be enforced if the culprit's identity stays unknown.

    Even if the IP address is available, it would cost a victim thousands of dollars to track down the perpetrators, said lawyer Daniel Chia of Stamford Law Corporation, who has represented victims of cyber harassment.

    Hiding under the cloak of anonymity, cyber trolls and impostors could thus continue to spread lies and insults, and abuse and berate victims.

    A doctor I interviewed last year was flamed and harassed online after an anonymous netizen created a fake Facebook account in her name, divulged details such as where she worked, and made derogatory comments about political parties and institutions.

    She made a police report and was told that tracking down the perpetrator would cost her a five-figure sum.

    Another area that bears closer examination is sexual harassment at the workplace.

    Barring Singapore, all those on Bloomberg's list of top business centres - such as Hong Kong, the United States, Britain, Australia, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and Canada - have specific laws to combat the issue, as do South Korea, Taiwan and India.

    While Singapore's new law will apply to harassment at the workplace as well, it falls short of international best practices, which impose legal obligations on companies to address the issue.

    This is not surprising, given concerns that holding companies accountable could raise business costs.

    In the US, workers can turn to a statutory commission, which can help them sue companies for financial damages for failing to take action against sexual harassment.

    In Britain and Hong Kong, staff can hold companies liable for sexual harassment actions unless they show they have taken reasonable steps to prevent such occurrences.

    In Singapore, even if a victim is able to put a stop to the harassment through a protection order, it remains to be seen how many can successfully sue their bosses for damages. The current law enables victims to seek damages, but the legal process is too costly.

    In my interviews with 10 victims of workplace harassment, all were disappointed with how their companies dealt with the matter.

    In some cases, the harassers were more senior than the human resource executives handling the complaint. Eight victims had to quit, and two claimed they were retrenched because of their complaint.

    The new law might not change matters unless companies take a cue from the Government that harassment must not be condoned and start to get tough on such acts at work.

    Transparency in dealing with harassment cases is paramount. In Hong Kong and the US, companies put their workplace harassment policies online.

    When The Sunday Times polled 25 companies here in 2012 about their policies for dealing with the issue, the majority declined to comment, saying such matters were confidential.

    This needs to change and it is in the interest of companies to do so.

    After all, the Government has heeded calls from victims and voluntary organisations such as women's group Aware, family violence centre Pave and the Singapore Children's Society in coming up with the new law proscribing harassment.

    If victims still do not get enough protection, the law could be tightened further to ensure that they do.