Japan eyes stricter penalties for cyberbullies

Cyberbullies may soon face stricter penalties under proposed changes to Japan’s criminal code that aim to crack down on online attacks.

The Justice Ministry plans to submit revisions to the Penal Code in mid-September for review by the Legislative Council, an advisory panel to the justice minister.

The Penal Code applies the term “insult” to a wide range of public statements that disparage another party even if no specific accusations are made. Charges of defamation require offenders to tarnish the social esteem of their targets with some degree of specificity, but the burden of proof is lower for insults.

The crime of defamation ​carries a maximum sentence of up to 3 years in prison with labor, or a fine of up to ¥500,000.

In contrast, insults are currently punishable by less than 30 days in detention without labor, or a petty fine of less than ¥10,000. The statute of limitations has been set at 3 years for defamation and just 1 year for insults.

Proposed revisions to the law would extend the statute of limitations for insults to 3 years.

Online defamation cases can be tricky: It takes time to identify the authors behind anonymous internet posts, and many perpetrators go unprosecuted. The ministry hopes the more stringent measures will make internet trolls think twice before posting such statements online, and prevent situations in which the victims have no choice but to endure such treatment.

Cyber bulling was brought to the fore by the apparent suicide in May last year of Hana Kimura, a 22-year-old pro wrestler and cast member of the popular “Terrace House” reality show on the Fuji Television network.

A summary indictment was subsequently brought against two men who had tweeted disparaging remarks about Kimura, but they were ultimately ordered to pay petty fines of just ¥9,000 each, prompting calls for the law to be changed to exact harsher penalties.

​The ministry set up a taskforce in June last year to review the nation’s penal provisions for internet libel. Noting how social media is an uncontrolled arena for mud-slinging by members of the public, the taskforce concluded it was necessary to levy the threat of prison with labor for online insults.

Under the proposed revision, the penalty for insults would be raised to a prison term of up to 1 year with labor, or a fine of up to ¥300,000.

The ministry has kept the penalties for insults below those of defamation due to the wide range of statements that can qualify for the crime of insults.

To impose criminal penalties, it is first necessary to pin down the identity of the authors of offending posts; the steps involved in getting service providers to disclose personal information about their users has in some cases prevented authorities from nabbing offenders before the statutes of limitations expired. ​

As the ministry plans to extend the statute of limitations for insults to 3 years, it may be possible to prosecute more cases of cyberbullying.