Monday 29 December 2014

We need new laws to stop cyber stalkers who are lurking on the net

Published 06/03/2014 | 02:30

Stalking always seemed to me like something that happened to people in Hollywood, when obsessed fans stood outside their mansions and took photos of them.

That was until I started researching stalking for a book I wrote last year. I was amazed at the amount of 'normal' people I met who had been stalked. The stories I was told had nothing to do with a bit of winking across a bar and a couple of Valentines being sent to the house. The people I met were verbally, physically and mentally abused. 

Cyber stalking was extremely prominent among the women I interviewed but the reasons behind the stalking were completely varied.

That's the confusing thing about stalking, it has no rhyme or reason, it's completely random. All it takes is one person to become fixated on you and the horror begins.

Two of our most prominent television presenters have recently revealed that they were stalked. Miriam O'Callaghan has bravely came out in support of Sharon Ni Bheolain's harassment case with her own stalking story.

RTE newsreader and mother of one Ni Bheolain has been subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation and received a series of emails which were described as "vile". She received doctored pornographic images as well as depraved threats of a sexual nature as part of the abuse which has left her very shaken.

In a show of solidarity to her colleague, O'Callaghan revealed that she also suffered at the hands of a stalker. "Sharon has been in a difficult situation with that stalker and I completely understand why she is so upset," O'Callaghan empathised. O'Callaghan said she chose not to talk about her ordeal when it happened a few years ago, but that it had been resolved. She makes the point that female broadcasters have to be extra careful as they are particularly vulnerable to harassment. "There can be people who develop obsessions . . . you have to be aware of that."

Ni Bheolain and O'Callaghan's bravery is to be applauded. Being stalked is not an easy thing to admit or talk about.

Recent statistics from a survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU FRA) revealed that 12pc of Irish women reported that they have experienced stalking and 19pc of young women said they had experienced cyber bullying.

And yet, sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Most stalking incidents still go unreported. A large part of the problem is that women are not properly protected under the current law. In Ireland, stalking is covered by Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act which was enacted in 1997. The law needs significant updating, particularly in the area of cyber stalking.

All women's groups have welcomed the upcoming Law Reform Commission's examination of internet and other forms of cyber-bullying.

One can only hope the commission pushes through strong laws against cyber stalking. Everyone is holding their breath as there was great disappointment when the commission recently concluded that the current law of harassment is sufficient to deal with stalking.

Women's Aid director Margaret Martin said of that decision: "It is problematic and will leave women and children vulnerable. In our experience, the definition of harassment in law is complex and hard to prove, and rarely used to protect women who are stalked by their partners or exes."

What Women's Aid is recommending is that a specific stalking offence be introduced in Irish law to include new forms of cyber stalking, and that stalking be recognised as grounds for a safety order.

"Technology is being used by abusive boyfriends and ex-boyfriends to monitor and control women, particularly younger women," said Martin. This can include the monitoring of mobile phone calls and texts, and stalking on social media.

"Women are also disclosing how they are bombarded with texts and calls often telling them, in explicit detail, how they will be attacked or even killed".

This barrage of abuse is what's been happening to Ni Bheolain and one can only imagine how terrifying it must be. What can start out as a gentle infatuation can very quickly spiral out of control.

We need stronger laws to protect us from the onslaught of the internet, where anonymous people can stalk you from the comfort of their homes, so that no one has to suffer at the hands of an unhinged stalker.

Irish Independent

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