Budget 2014: How far does harassment Bill go?

Budget 2014: How far does harassment Bill go?

How far does harassment Bill go? Parliament passed the Protection from Harassment Bill on Thursday, after a four-hour debate that saw 15 MPs speaking on issues ranging from stalking to workplace harassment. Here are excerpts of their questions and Law Minister K. Shanmugam's replies.

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.

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