Rights group takes on online bullying

Bede Hong

The anonymity of the internet makes it a perfect place for cyber bullies to inflict harm, abuse or threats on others, besides invading users’ privacy. – EPA pic, October 7, 2017.

A HUMAN rights group looking to expand laws to protect online users from cyber-harassment will complete a public feedback initiative today and prepare a consultation document it hopes will form the basis for stronger laws to tackle the problem.

The Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) will compile the views under its PeopleACT initiative and hand it over to internet regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), various ministries and other organisations.

MCCHR project manager Lim Ka Ea said information communication technology was increasingly used as a tool to inflict harm, abuse or threats on others, besides invading users’ privacy. 

Threats of rape, death and exposure of private data, information and photographs are emotionally stressful and the damage they inflict on their victims can sometimes extend to physical trauma, she said.

“In most of these cases, perpetrators of cyber-harassment are rarely held accountable for their behaviour and the possibility of being anonymous in cyber-space exacerbates this problem,” Lim said. 

Particularly vulnerable are women and girls, with United Nations figures showing that 73% of them have been exposed or have experienced some form of online violence. 

In Malaysia, cyber threats and invasion of privacy have emerged against users who either expressed sensitive views or who are vilified if they committed a wrong.

In a 2014 case, a young woman caught on video hitting the car of an elderly man after an accident was maligned on social media with her identity, car registration number and other private information exposed.

In 2015, a radio presenter who questioned hudud law in Kelantan in a YouTube video received threats and her photo shared widely on social media along with vile comments.

Social activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi who organised a dog familiarisation event in 2014 also received death threats and nasty messages online, Lim added.

Besides MCMC, other stakeholders to receive the document are the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), the ministries of Science, Technology and Innovation; Women, Family and Community Development; police; Bar Council; and academics.

In an interview with The Malaysian Insight, Lim explains the campaign to enact new laws against cyber-harassment.

Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights chief Lim Ka Ea says a majority of cyber-harassment victims are women. – The Malaysian Insight pic, October 7, 2017.

TMI: What is the issues paper about? 

Lim: This issues paper reviews Malaysian legislation that is relevant to cyber-harassment and other harmful cyber behaviours, in particular, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Penal Code, and civil actions, such as privacy and harassment.

The paper also looks at laws in other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, Hong Kong, Ireland and the European Union (EU), to see how the laws in these jurisdictions deal with cyber-harassment and other harmful cyber behaviours. 

TMI: How did this initiative began? 

Lim: It was proposed by a group of (civil society) organisations. We want this to be a process of participatory democracy. We do civic education. 

Previously, we provided skills and knowledge to youth to carry out the campaigns that they want. This year, we thought we should take it a bit further when we see a lot of Malaysians who are unhappy with certain issues. What they do is take it to the street. Protest. But then nothing actually happens afterwards. No follow-up. 

So, we thought, let’s try and get together all these human rights defenders from different groups and come up with one issue that all of us feel strongly about that affects everyone and see how we can work together with different stakeholders to see a longer-lasting impact rather than just protesting.

So I would say that it’s a collective initiative. We published issues papers this year that we did from July until December. We did a nationwide survey, as well as legal research, and also we interviewed different survivors of cyber-harassment to get their views. 

TMI: Who are the victims?

Lim: Anybody who is online is vulnerable. I don’t think that there has been any conclusive study to show who is more prone.

In our study, we only interviewed about 17 people, face to face. But we also collected incidents of cyber-harassment from the media, which is about 17 to 18 people. So, in total, there are about 40 people we have identified… and I would say a majority are women. 

I don’t want to say it’s conclusive because it’s only (more than) 40 people (in our study) and it doesn’t represent the whole of Malaysia, but out of this, it’s a high proportion that are women. It’s like more than 90%. 

Out of this 90%, it would seem that women in their 20s to 30s seem to be harassed… for several reasons and some of them were expressive about their political opinions. 

They are also expressive about their opinions on religious issues. So, they get harassed as well.

There are celebrities who are out there who may be wearing clothes which make a group of people uncomfortable. So, they also get harassed because of that. There are also some (victims) who had expressed a different sexual orientation.

Or cases where celebrities who marry a guy who used to be married to someone else. So, this woman celebrity is harassed online and is called a husband-snatcher. Two or three cases. Then there are body-shaming cases.

TMI: What laws might have to be changed?

Lim: The research has identified all the existing laws that could potentially address cyber-harassment, but it also addresses the gaps. The laws right now don’t address revenge porn, for instance. 

For now, the Communications and Multimedia Act says that any comment that is malicious, or which is annoying or insulting, is potentially an offence. 

It’s so vague that is up to the interpretation of the judge. When you don’t define it, a lot of problems arise. 

TMI: What model are you following?

Lim: Some countries have defined (cyber-harassment), like UK the EU and Australia. Irish law says that if you provoke someone to commit suicide, you will get punished.

That is the only country so far that has gone (that far) because a lot of cyber-harassment ends up with teenagers committing suicide. 

(These countries) define (cyber-harassment) as comments that cause distress, humiliation and which create a hostile environment. But in Malaysia, any comment considered as offensive, obscene or malicious is considered as an offence. There’s no need to prove whether there was harm or distress.

TMI: What do people feel about new laws which might be used to curb dissent instead?

Lim: It is a consultative process. In the end, we will re-evaluate public sentiment. So far, a majority of them seem to say that a new law is needed. The general sentiment is yes. 

The laws must be specific to deal with five types of harassment: hateful comment, sexual harassment, obscenity, death and rape threats and invasion of privacy. 

TMI: What are the biggest challenges in gathering feedback on possible new laws?

Lim: I think online harassment laws are not gaining traction because people see online space as not real. What happens online is not going to hurt you physically because you don’t have that physical interaction with your harasser. And people view it as a women’s issue, as sexual harassment mostly affects women. – October 7, 2017.

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