The concerns over the rise of online cases on sexual harassment and threats against persons, especially women, is a clear indication that we can no longer take the threat of online abuse lightly. The Government must not ignore online sexual harassment and act quickly against these threats.

While the Communication and Multimedia Act can be used on general threats and abusive and offensive language and conduct, there is none specific to sexual harassment.

The delayed and/or non-action from the authorities does promote this toxic behavior and gives these voices a stage and a microphone to amplify such abusive action to an audience. The recent death and rape threats against the three of us on social media is a clear indication of how easily women can be targeted.

Death and rape threats encountered online must be treated the same way as if they were made offline and therefore the Communications and Multimedia Ministry and the Police must take swift action against the perpetrators of such crimes including those made against us.

It is also time for the Government to bring in reform to deal with online harassment in general, and in particular to women. The heartbreaking news of the recent suicide of a 20-year-old woman from Penang who became a victim of bullying on Facebook, shows the devastating impact of online harassment.

Online harassment should not be seen as harmless or just ‘trolling’ acts because its ultimate aim is to bully and dehumanize someone perceived to be in a weaker position. As more and more of our children start using the internet from a young age, we do not want these impressionable young Malaysians to be swept up in a culture of bullying, abuse, and hatred.

All it takes is for the message to find an audience and such threats can become real. We have already seen how online hate such as the New Zealand mosque shootings last year had been motivated by hate messages.

The reform must encompass pre-emptive measures to create a safer online experience for everyone.

We must spread awareness on how to use the internet responsibly and ethically. Promoting empathy online will hopefully help Malaysians understand the experience and perspective of others online.

It is the Government’s duty and responsibility to promote model digital citizens by engaging them in online etiquette classes and media literacy courses formally from the primary school level onwards. We encourage the Education Ministry and the Higher Education Ministry to come up with clear steps on how to promote teaching children responsible engagement online as soon as possible.

Perikatan Nasional should also put pressure on social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok to deal with online hatred in Malaysia. These billion-dollar companies can surely afford to hire local people to monitor and stop online hate speeches. Therefore, the Government must insist that they take steps to deal with specific forms of online abuse and harassment encountered by Malaysians in all main languages and take steps to address online abuse.

Aside from this, there are also clear gaps in our laws that must be addressed. Our current laws do not allow for victims to seek damages for sexual harassment, there is no designated officer that looks into sexual harassment cases, and victims do not get any immediate protection order to keep the harasser away.

The Government must implement a comprehensive Sexual Harassment Act as soon as possible. This Bill was already in the works under the Pakatan Harapan Government and was done alongside civil society organisations familiar with the issue.

Sexual Harassment Bill is necessary because the current provisions under the Penal Code and Employment Act only address sexual harassment as a crime. However, sexual harassment is a special offence that requires a holistic reform approach as it requires quasi-judicial processes that has legal and non-legal approaches as well as taking on issues of on- and offline stalking, repeated abuses and so forth. The right to be protected against sexual harassment must be institutionalised and be complemented by awareness, training, internal inquiry processes as well as counselling services for both harasser and victim. These are the guidelines as stipulated in “The Code of Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, 1999”, which was set up by the Ministry of Human Resources.

The Government must also address the stigma associated with the reporting of sexual harassment cases in Malaysia. The Women’s Aid Organisation for instance reported that between 2016 and 2017, there was a drop in reported cases from 338 to 267. Meanwhile a YouGOv Omnibus survey, 2019 found that over a third of Malaysian women have experienced sexual harassment. All this points to the fact that women are less and less encouraged to report these cases when they happen although the issue has not been solved.

The lack of options that victims of sexual harassment face is absolutely unacceptable in this day and age. While the authorities must be empowered to act against such incidences, we must also ensure that sexual harassment is taken seriously by everyone.