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Online Vigilantism in Singapore

It is no question that we now have access to more resources than ever. With easy access to the internet and increasingly advanced technology, the world is at our fingertips. Assuredly, this shapes and shifts our society every day with the immense power it grants us – but are we using our abilities for good?

Keyboard Warriors or Slanderous Trolls?

The act of capturing footage of misdemeanors and crimes and sharing them on social media sites has found traction with the public, especially with the growing prominence of smartphones and in-vehicle cameras. Examples of such videos are abundant, such as the abuse of a woman by her daughter, the abuse of an old man in a hawker centre, and the theft from a private-hire car driver.

They often attract comments expressing moral outrage and attempts to identify and persecute the recorded perpetrators, which do not always turn out right or well. The line between condemning misbehaviour and harassment or defamation is thin, but it is one you must still be aware of.

What Offences Could I be Charged With?

While raising awareness of a misdeed can raise the chances of the perpetrator being caught, it can also stir mob hysteria and lean into the crimes of harassment and defamation.

Harassment may be available as a charge when you cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress to another person’ through ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ behaviour or communication. This includes any attempts at stalking the person that cause distress.

For defamation, you may be charged so long as you refer to a person by name or picture, and make a false statement that both lowers that person’s reputation and causes his or her social suffering. The larger the audience of your defamatory statement, the greater the damage caused in the eyes of the court.

Should you take the opportunity to express comments that are hateful and prejudiced towards a particular community, you may be charged under the Sedition Act (Cap 290). This Act prosecutes anything that promotes ill-will, such as in the case of Ed Mundsel Bello Ello (http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/foreigner-who-made-inflammatory-remarks-convicted).

What Penalties Could I Face?

Any possible sentence would depend on the sort of charge put on you and the severity of your offence. If you have been charged with an offence, do contact a lawyer so you can get the legal guidance you need. This section can only provide a broad outline of what to expect.

Should you be charged with harassment, you may have to serve a community order. You may also have to pay damages to the victim if he or she brings civil proceedings against you under the Protection from Harassment Act (Cap 256A). If you are a repeated offender, you will be liable to a fine or a term of imprisonment or both.

Besides that, a defamatory statement could leave you open to being sued under the tort of malicious falsehood, and a charge under the Sedition Act could mean a fine of up to S$5,000.00 or a term of imprisonment up to three (3) years, or both.

What If I Did Not Mean It?

You may wish to make an Offer of Amends and provide proof that your statement was made innocently. Accordingly, you should be prepared to issue a public apology and inform the audience of your statement that its contents were defamatory.

If this offer is accepted by the victim and you have acted accordingly, you will not have to go to court. Otherwise, you will have to prove to the court your innocence in publishing the defamatory statement and your willingness to make amends in how soon you send an Offer of Amends.

Must the Offender be Singaporean or in Singapore?

No. If the foreigner is located in Singapore or has agreed for Singapore to be the appropriate jurisdiction for legal proceedings, the court has full jurisdiction, and the perpetrator will be treated the same way as a local.

If the perpetrator committed the offence while abroad, he or she may still be brought to justice in Singapore. This is supported by the case of Low Tuck Kwong v Sukamto Sia (2012) SCHC 233, where the key events happened in Indonesia but the parties were Singapore residents, and the case was tried in Singapore.

What Do I Do As A Victim of Harassment/Defamation?

If you are or have been the target of defamatory statements or online harassment, do not fret – there is recourse available to you.

Before taking any action, you should identify the main harasser or a person whose communication has harmed you. Take note of how the communication has caused you suffering and retain evidence of it where you can.

Harassment, especially online, can quickly become overwhelming and you may just want it all to stop. Under the Protection from Harassment Act, you can apply for a Protection Order from the court, which stops the harasser and can stop others from re-publishing and spreading the harassing communication.

Should you suffer losses because of harassment or defamation, you can claim for damages through civil proceedings. This loss can be monetary or otherwise, such as losing a job opportunity because of slander. Do engage a lawyer, so your interests are properly represented.

The Light Side of Online Vigilantism

It would, of course, be prudent to remember that sharing misdeeds online can be helpful. When not wrongly harassing a scapegoat or going overboard in harassment, online vigilantes have uncovered and brought attention to otherwise unnoticed crimes and offences being committed. In a way, every share, like and comment help get justice for the victims.

As stated by psychologist Dr Stephen Rochefort online vigilantism can also “regulate social norms and expectations” by applying social pressure on potential perpetrators. This may be a factor in deterring them from offending.

Spreading awareness online is therefore not all bad. It just relies on the compassion and common sense of netizens to remain both respectful and effective.

Online Policing: Done Safe, Done Well

To avoid crossing the line, making lives unpleasant and being charged in court, you should always think before you act and remember to act with compassion.

Here are some general guidelines to follow:

  • If you have media of an offence being committed, you should report the situation directly to the police and provide the media as evidence, where appropriate, instead of posting online.
  • If you post media that depicts an offence being committed, discourage any readers from responding violently or directly disparaging any suspects.
  • If you come across media depicting an offence being committed, refrain from contributing a violent or unreasonably harsh comment. You should also refrain from trying to find the suspect to harass him or her.

The list here is evidently not exhaustive; as with most things, you should exercise your own careful discretion. While it is understandable that you may feel strongly for the situation, it is still no excuse to infringe on the lives of others. Also remember that you are working with limited evidence and that there is always a chance you may be bullying an innocent person.

Even if you know for a fact that your target is the perpetrator, you should still exhibit some self-control. As Dr Teoh Ren Shang reminds us, we should remain mindful and understanding of others’ troubles. Instead of embarking on witch-hunts and crucifixions, trust that the law is punishment enough and do not to venture beyond a reasonable statement that disapproves of the misdeed.

The article was originally posted at irblaw.com.sg

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