In 2013, the Protection Against Harassment Act was promulgated and signalled a legislative move to protecting people from harassment in general, but specifically in the online environment.

What’s cool about the new Act?

In the past only persons in a domestic relationship (spouses, children, etc) were granted protection against harassment under The Domestic Violence Act, which left many victims of harassment unprotected. The new act provides ALL people (even children, without the assistant of a parent or guardian) with a cheap civil remedy.

Cyber Bullying

In a move to protect children from cyber bullying, the new Act also stipulates that they do not need parental consent before undertaking on such a step (approaching courts), should they do so.

How Does the New Act Apply to Social Media?

Social Media-and-the-Law

Harassment, in terms of the Act, includes:

  • unreasonably following, watching, pursuing or accosting a person (or related person) or loitering outside of or near a building or place where a person (or related person) resides, works, carries on business, studies or happens to be
  • unreasonable verbal, electronic or other communication (regardless of whether or not conversation ensues)
  • unreasonable sending or delivery of letters, telegrams, packages, faxes, email to a person (or related person)
  • sexual harassment
  • bullying (including cyber bullying).

If the perpetrator is unknown (like an internet troll), the Act provides for a procedure under which a magistrate’s court can issue a directive to an electronic communications service provider to provide it with information about:

  • the sender of harassing communications and
  • the harassing communications themselves.

If the court is satisfied that you are being harassed it may also issue a directive directing the South African police to investigate the matter and identify the perpetrator.

A recent instance when this act could have protected vulnerable youth from harassment is the alleged sexual harassment by academics at the University of the Witwatersrand. Students revealed, on an anonymously authored website, that politics Professor Rupert Taylor would invite students to meet for coffee with sexually suggestive messages on Facebook, BBM and via email. (Since the allegations were made public, Taylor stepped down as head of politics. Wits confirmed that an investigation is underway but have not publicly named Taylor as the academic being investigated.)

The procedure

According to the Act, if a person subjected to harassment, they must apply for a protection order from the clerk of a court (in the area where you live or work), which will then be issued to the alleged perpetrator.

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If the person contravenes the order they will be deemed guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.