Image-based sexual abuse: Law in NI ‘not strong enough’

A victim of image-based sexual abuse in the Republic of Ireland has welcomed changes to the law, but wants similar legislation in Northern Ireland.

The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act, also known as Coco’s Law, came into effect in the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday.

The new legislation makes it a criminal offence to share images of another person without their consent.

But the law is “not strong enough” in Northern Ireland, Megan Sims said.

The 24-year-old, who is from County Limerick, has been campaigning for new legislation since her pictures were shared from her OnlyFans page without her consent.

On the platform, followers pay a monthly subscription fee to access creators’ photos, videos or live streams.

Tougher new laws were proposed by Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee in November 2020 after thousands of images of Irish women were shared online without their consent.

View original tweet on Twitter

‘You blame yourself – but you did nothing wrong’

“I had my photos and videos shared thousands of times and then, with that, came the messages,” Megan Sims told BBC Radio Foyle. 

“I received over 400-plus messages calling me every name under the sun, and telling me to kill myself.

“It did lead to a suicide attempt for me – it was a difficult one for me to deal with.”

She said she felt “a sense of hopelessness” when her images were sent to friends and family by online trolls in an attempt “to shame her”.

“You can blame yourself, but really – you did nothing wrong – it was people taking and sharing images without consent that was the issue.

“People don’t see it as a sexual crime, they just see it as a copyright issue – when it’s not.”

Ms Sims has called on greater consent education in schools and also highlighted the need for greater internet safety among younger people.

“Kids are growing up with a phone in their pockets constantly, that comes with added risks.”

She said the legislation in the Republic of Ireland “isn’t perfect” but hopes that it will offer greater protection for victims.

Sharing explicit images without consent became an offence in England and Wales in April 2015, with similar laws introduced one year later in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Offences relating to image-based sexual abuse are found in the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.

It is an offence under the act to “disclose a private sexual photograph or film of an individual who appears in the photograph or film without their consent with the intention of causing that individual distress”.

Only disclosures of private sexual photos or films made to third parties with “an intent to cause distress” currently constitutes an offence. 

Ms Sims believes the laws, like the ones in Northern Ireland and England, are failing because “it’s very hard to prove intent” and “it is on to the victim to prove that intent”.

A spokesman for NI’s Department of Justice (DoJ) told BBC News NI that Minister Naomi Long is “fully committed to playing her part in addressing this issue”.

Coco’s Law

The Irish legislation introduces two new offences to deal with the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.

• The first offence deals with the distribution or publication of intimate images without consent and with intent to cause harm. The penalties applicable can be an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment of up to seven years.

• The second offence deals with the taking, distribution or publication of intimate images without consent even if there is no specific intent to cause harm. This offence carries a maximum penalty of €5,000 (£4,386) and/or two months imprisonment.

He said that while telecommunications is a reserved – rather than devolved – matter, DoJ officials have been liaising with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to “ensure the interests of Northern Ireland are fully met”.

“On 15 December 2020, the UK government published its response to the Online Harms White Paper which sets out how a proposed legal duty of care on online companies will work in practice and gives them new responsibilities towards their users,” the spokesman said.

‘Improved protection’

He added: “Social media sites, websites, apps and other services which host user-generated content or allow people to talk to others online will need to remove and limit the spread of illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content.”

He said the UK government is working with the Law Commission to improve protection afforded at present in criminal law.

“It is recognised that reform of the law is needed to protect victims from harmful online behaviour including abusive messages, cyber flashing, pile-on harassment and the malicious sharing of information known to be false,” the spokesman said.

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