In the absence of cybercrime laws in Trinidad and Tobago, and an alleged lack of enforcement of the existing law, cyberstalking victims are claiming that a lack of protection is condemning them to a life of fear and mental torture.
Over the past three weeks, Guardian Media spoke to multiple women subject to online harassment and threats. In some instances, the women said they were harassed and threatened for multiple years.
They alleged that repeated attempts to get the T&T Police Service to prosecute their stalkers failed.
“There are women who walk into police stations with a black eye and they report their husbands and these women are not taken seriously. And the police don’t do anything. They don’t even go to find out what is happening and these people end up dead…
“So, if they aren’t taking that seriously, are they going to take a bunch of messages with threats seriously?” one victim asked.
“They are not seeing that as anything. They are not seeing the psychological warfare that a person goes through when they are being harassed and when they are being stalked.”
Another victim, who has been cyberstalked for more than five years, said, “It feels like, why bother? We are just so ignored and I don’t think they realise how far this goes–essentially, it’s just so psychological beyond it being physical, obviously, being a real threat to physical safety and potentially turning into real violence.”
According to a senior officer from the TTPS’ Cybercrime Unit, it is difficult to determine which reports can be classified as cyberstalking.
Because of this, he said, they are unable to provide statistics.
He said the service was pushing to get cybercrime laws enacted soon, in an attempt to offer more protection against offences such as cyberbullying and cyberstalking.
The officer said there was already room, in current legislation, for people to be prosecuted, in some cases, for harassment.
Cyberstalking is defined as the use of the internet, or other electronic means, to harass and intimidate a selected victim.
Under the current laws of T&T, a person can be charged for harassing or causing distress to people online under Section 30A of the Offences Against the Person Act.
Section 30A (IV) says,”Harassment of a person includes alarming the person or causing the person distress by engaging in a course of conduct such as…Making contact with the person, whether by gesture, directly, verbally, by telephone, computer, post or in any other way.”
A person found guilty of the offence is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $2,000 and imprisonment for six months.
The Offences Against the Person Act also states that a person who is found guilty of causing the other person to fear that violence will be used against them or cause the other person so to fear is liable on indictment to a fine of $10,000 and five years imprisonment or; on summary conviction, to a fine of $5,000 and six years imprisonment.
During its first term in office, the Government attempted to strengthen cybercrime laws through the Cybercrime Bill, 2017.
The bill, introduced in 2017, among other things, aimed to create and increase penalties for offences like revenge porn, cyberbullying and cyberstalking.
According to Clause 18 (1) of the proposed law, a person who uses a computer system to communicate with the intention to cause harm to another person commits an offence.
It adds that a person who commits an offence is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine of $100,000 and three years imprisonment and, on indictment, to a fine of $250,000 and five years imprisonment.
However, the Media Association of T&T objected to the aspects of the bill, specifically clause 8, saying it criminalised the basic practice of journalism.
Clause 8 sought to criminalise the illegal acquisition of computer data, as well as punish people who ‘receive or gain access to data knowing that it is obtained illegally.’
MATT, supported by the American Chamber of Commerce of T&T, called for an exemption to the clause for people acting in the public’s interest.
MATT President Dr Sheila Rampersad said, “A public interest exemption would retain criminal accountability for mischief and malice, while preemptively protecting the constitutional rights of all citizens, organisations and institutions engaged in nation-building through greater transparency.”
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, in response, claimed the exemption would have been “too broad.”
Despite discussions, the two parties are yet to agree.
The bill, which requires a special majority of three-fifths of the members of each house, is under review and is expected to return to the Parliament’s agenda.
Worldwide, 154 countries have enacted cybercrime laws, according to the United Nations.
However, in the absence of cybercrime law in T&T, and despite the Offences Against the Person Act, many victims said they are not protected from online harassment, threats and potential violence from stalkers.
Two victims agreed to share their stories with Guardian Media.
Their names were changed to protect their identities.
Since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in T&T in March 2020, we have all been forced to give up, in one way or another, certain liberties for the greater good.
But imagine giving up those freedoms, while having to wonder every day if someone will harm you or kill you.
It has now been more than a year since 32-year-old school teacher Naomi left home on her own.
“I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to depend on anyone. I like to move around freely, but because my family is close-knit and because my family is worried about me, what they would do is have me chaperoned like you would a teenager or child, just so I wouldn’t end up in some situation where I would end up getting hurt or snatched,” Naomi said with resignation.
In March 2020, a woman began harassing Naomi through Facebook and WhatsApp.
It started after Naomi made an anonymous report to police that the person threatened and assaulted her friend.
However, the person discovered Naomi made the report after going through her relative’s (Naomi’s friend) phone. Facebook messages, from the person’s open Facebook profile, with the initials A L, to Naomi read:
AL: “You are messing with the wrong individual.”
AL: “You do not know me.”
AL: “Whoever send you please tell them I am not the one to play with.”
AL: “Because I think you have mistaken my silence for one that can be bullied.”
AL: “But go right ahead child.”
AL: “The Lord knows I’ll deal with you in a way that cannot be explained.”
Naomi: “I consider that a threat.”
Naomi: “You will be blocked.”
AL: “Go right ahead. Consider this was a serious warning.”
Naomi made a report to the St Joseph Police Station in 2020 about the harassment and police contacted the individual and told them to cease.
However, after the report, she began receiving scores of anonymous calls, emails and social media friend requests from suspicious profiles.
Several fake profiles were also created using her pictures. “I said to the police that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who is doing it. Even though they sent their first string of threats via Facebook for the whole world to see and everyone knows it is their actual Facebook profile, I am still being told, they have no way of verifying that is the person’s actual Facebook profile. So, in that case, they can’t make any arrests,” Naomi lamented.
“I would have reported the harassment to the police on three separate occasions. So, they have a name. They have a location. They have a contact number and nothing is being done. All I am being told is that because one aspect was sent anonymously–which is an email–that there’s nothing they can do about it.”
By November 2020, the harassment turned into more serious threats.
In one disturbing incident, someone sent photographs of Naomi’s home to her.
The person who sent the message also described correctly what clothes Naomi was wearing that night.
“Even when I’m in my home, I don’t feel safe because I constantly wonder if somebody is watching. I wonder if I go outside to take out the trash, what’s going to happen?–Is there somebody who might be in a vehicle that I may not have noticed?” Naomi said, describing her apprehension in doing basic tasks.
“It feels like I’m just there waiting for something to happen to me. I’m at the point now where I’m asking myself does it make sense to stay in Trinidad? I know, for a fact, they have relatives who are criminals, so I just don’t know what’s going to happen to me and I have no protection whatsoever from the police.”
Guardian Media obtained three WhatsApp voice notes sent to Naomi earlier this year.
A woman in the voice notes said, “We will stalk you from North, South, East and West. Lady, you will get stalked from all different members cause my family is real big, you understand? You will get calls from Mexico, America, Canada, England…I could go in the police service and give them your number…I have plenty friends. So, I’m warning you.”
Naomi wondered what it would take for police to intervene and take action against her stalker.
“I don’t know if they are waiting for another Andrea Bharatt,” she added.
‘The TTPS is telling women who are threatened and harassed that we need to take the reports seriously and report them, and when we do report them, nothing happens.
“I talked to a sergeant from the St Joseph Police Station and he told me he doesn’t know anything about that–that he doesn’t know anything about the Offences Against the Persons Act. It’s like you’re not dead yet, or you’re kidnapped yet. They only like to come when there is caution tape.”
Five years ago, Diana was introduced to someone by a friend at a public event.
Little did she know then that the person would end up stealing her freedom, as she knew it then, for the next five years.
“This person started trying to contact me on social media repeatedly and I ignored their attempts because I just wasn’t interested and I guess the issue kind of starts with how women are kind of told to let fellas down nicely,” Diana recalled.
“I had no reason to kind of assume that anybody has bad intentions…but, in retrospect, I was suspicious and that’s why I was never responding to this person.”
However, Diana went against her gut instinct and responded to the person’s social media message request.
Immediately, he became obsessive, messaging her constantly on multiple social media platforms.
He also began messaging her close friends, seeking information about Diana.
“They thought it was just another person of our age inquiring about some girl they like and they gave him information about me to try and be able to contact me, but they didn’t realise what they were doing. I spoke to, at least, five people who had conversations with him,” she said.
“He started showing up at places and speaking to me and I was unaware whether police warned him or anything because police were not communicative at all.”
Despite making multiple reports to police, Diana said the harassment continues.
She has blocked dozens of fake profiles across all social media platforms, while she is scared to go outside by herself.
The following are a series of messages to and comments about Diana by the person, with the initials EP, over Instagram.
EP: “We are not strangers to one another.”
EP: “I am not f****** Harassing you.”
EP: “Go f*** yourself you dumb.”
EP: “You f****** crazy say whatever the f*** you want…LOL I know my work I know I’m your type and **** is not your f****** Boyfriend you stupid b****”
EP: “Shut the f*** up before u go missing.”
“The mental and emotional impact of this has been so much. It’s been years of this, and only a few moments/stretches of peace. I’ve never felt so angry in my life,” Diana confessed.
“I’ve never felt so much just rage and hatred because when somebody tries to take away your sense of safety and independence, and there’s no kind of rationale. It’s just so frustrating and obviously, there’s fear as well because I don’t know where he can show up.”
Diana said she has tried all the methods and routes recommended to her by the police service, including keeping evidence of threats and harassment.
However, she said, she gets nothing in return and is left feeling like they are not doing anything to follow up on her numerous reports.
“I also went through the Cybercrime Unit and they seemed helpful at first, but they just dropped the case and kept saying, we will call you back because we are following up on it, but nothing happens. Nothing ever happens,” she complained.
“It’s just disappointing and I basically have no faith in them at this point, so if anything happens–the most I would do is report, but I can’t hope for them to do anything.”
Diana longs for the day when she will be able to have a normal life again.
She dreams of feeling comfortable enough to participate in her community and start a business, she said.
Being able to make her social media profiles public again will also be nice, she added.
“It’s like my life, basically, becomes a game of avoiding this person, even though I know that if that happens, that’s the only time the police will do something. So, what am I supposed to do? Risk my safety, just so the police actually do something in the end? It’s not worth it,” she said.
According to Diana, her situation is just another example of women being forced to live in fear in T&T–unable to reach their full potential.
In a recent case of cyberbullying in the United States, an Iowa man was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for harassing and cyberstalking a woman for close to two years. In sentencing him, A US District Judge described his conduct as “a form of mental torture” and a “form of public terrorism.”