The Ministry of Youth and Sports led-committee, comprising members of the Youth Services Council in partnership with Wijeya Newspapers, Women in Need, Child Protection Force, iProbono and the Family Planning Association, met with officials from the Ministry of Justice last week to finalize their proposals for reforms to the Penal Code.
New offences of harassment, bullying, voyeurism and revenge porn
The Penal Code reform project, which commenced in October last year following an inaugural meeting with the Ministry of Justice, is drafting proposals to introduce new offences to tackle harassment, bullying, voyeurism and revenge porn. The new offences are being drafted to address, amongst others, the increasing incidents of cyber harassment and bullying which have had a disproportionate impact on youth and children.
For the first time, aggravated punishments are being proposed when victims are harassed or bullied because of certain protected characteristics such as their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, or if the victim was in an intimate relationship with the accused. These proposals are in response to increasing incidences of harassment, bullying and revenge porn against intimate partners and vulnerable persons.
Unprecedented increase in cyber bullying, harassment
Technology based violence has seen unprecedented growth in Sri Lanka. In a recent Woman in Need (WIN) published report, survey data revealed that nearly 1 in 4 individuals knew of a friend who experienced online harassment of a sexual nature. With 1 in 5 individuals reporting knowing of someone who had edited, doctored or photoshopped images of them shared on the internet as well as intimate pictures or videos of themselves shared on social media.
The proposed new offences will be tackling doctoring of images for revenge porn purposes and sharing personal contact information of victims.
The WIN survey data also revealed that the highest reporting of instances by women where intimate pictures or videos of a friend where shared on the internet or social network sites or apps were from Batticaloa (63.9 %), Badulla (58.5 %), Ampara (39.6 %), Trincomalee (37.8 %) and Kalutara (35.6%) districts. These shocking statistics coming out of Sri Lanka adds further weight to the urgent need for law reform to address these issues.
Updating outdated and inadequate offences
The reforms are also proposing to amend and update parts of the Penal Code to prevent the arbitrary interference into the private affairs of consenting adults, to halt police abuse of offences especially against youth in consensual relationships and to address discrepancies in Sri Lanka’s rape and incest laws including making rape and incest a gender-neutral offence and expanding the scope of rape.
Amendments to address police abuse and adopt a victim-centric approach to crime
Recently, several media reported instances of mass scale arrests by police of young couples under indecency laws for simple acts such as holding hands or even speaking to each other. Media also reported several cases where police conducted raids of private homes and hotel rooms to arrest and prosecute adults for consensual relationships under outdated and vague penal code offences.
The gross abuse of vague offences in the penal code has led to several calls amongst youth and civil society to update and amend outdated legislation, to end the era of victimless and victim-blaming crimes and the arbitrary enforcement of laws. A number of victims of online harassment and bullying have complained that police and law-enforcement often take a victim-blaming approach when complaints are made. The lack of laws to address harassment and bullying, especially cyber harassment and bullying, has often left victims grappling in the dark with an unsympathetic legal system. The proposed reforms will attempt to address this by adopting a more victim-centric approach to offences and clearly laying out the offences with several illustrations and examples to provide clarity and direction.