Use stricter punishment as a tool to prevent vicious cyberbullying

Defamatory attacks to hurt others with uncaring words are rampant on the internet. The current legal system needs to be revised to prevent serious harm.

To strengthen measures against vicious online insults, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa has consulted with the Legislative Council, an advisory panel to the minister, over whether to amend the Penal Code to introduce prison terms as a penalty for criminal insult.

Criminal insult is the crime of using abusive language against a victim in a public setting even without alleging concrete facts. The statutory penalty is detention of up to 30 days or a fine of up to ¥10,000. This is lighter than the penalty for defamation, the crime of defaming others while referring to something specific.

A female professional wrestler who appeared on a TV program committed suicide after receiving abusive messages on social media. Two men who posted such defamatory messages were charged with criminal insult in the case, but were fined only ¥9,000 each.

If the law revision is realized, it would be possible to impose imprisonment with or without labor for up to one year or a fine of up to ¥300,000. The revision is also expected to deter malicious posts.

People who use online message boards and social media must be aware that malicious posts can sometimes destroy others’ lives, and that reckless behavior could be severely punished.

The statute of limitations, the period of time after which criminal charges cannot be brought, will also be extended from the current one year to three years. As defamatory postings are usually anonymous, it takes time and effort to identify those behind such posts. Because of the statute of limitations, many victims have given up on filing complaints. As such, the law revision would be significant.

The offense of criminal insult has existed since the Meiji era (1868-1912). The annual number of cases investigated by authorities has remained at about 70 in recent years. However, in the internet age, the level of damage has rapidly increased.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has a hotline for dealing with illegal and harmful words and images. It received 5,407 calls in fiscal 2020, four times more than 10 years ago. In recent years, novel coronavirus patients, medical workers and athletes at the Tokyo Olympics have been among the victims.

Social media service providers, among others, bear grave responsibility for having failed to come up with effective measures to respond to the issue. Some European countries have required these businesses to delete illegal postings.

These businesses should expedite effective measures such as voluntarily removing malicious postings.

However, it is hoped that online space can be a place where people can freely express their opinions. It is also important for the police to give due consideration to freedom of expression when investigating those who posted abusive messages.

Next year, the court procedures needed for victims to learn the identity of those who posted defamatory messages will also be simplified. In an increasing number of cases, posters try to evade responsibility by deleting posts after defaming others. It is necessary to make effective use of such a system to help victims recover quickly from the harm done to them.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 17, 2021.