Touria Prayag's Blog

Hating the haters 23 January 2014

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on January 23, 2015

The comment spread like a bushfi re over the weekend.
Despicable it was – there is no argument about
that. But that is not the debate.
The debate is wider than a half-witted woman ranting
on Facebook about abolishing Tamil/Hindu
festivals in almost unintelligible terms. It is wider
than another misfi t who decided to write about the
whole Muslim community as a way to rid herself of
the anger she had been harbouring against her own
husband. And it is certainly much deeper than a
couple of puerile adolescents posing on graves in a
Christian cemetery and fl aunting the event as a big
achievement. The debate is about the laws which
regulate this type of behaviour and to what extent
they can be enforced.
It is not our intention to minimise the act of posting
offensive messages on Facebook. Far from it. Every
time a silly or ignorant Facebooker posts something
that is perceived to be against a particular religion
or community, the reaction takes on gargantuan
proportions.
Yes, we do live in a racially-fragile society where
communal feelings and tensions run very high. We
have been living peacefully in this country because
there is an unwritten code: that of practising one’s
religion – or not practising any – and keeping off
criticising that of others. With that in mind, one has
to be aware of how little it takes to whip up sentiment
and therefore using social media to spread one’s
garbage should be checked one way or the other.
However, fl outing Section 282 of the law – “inciting
racial and religious hatred” – which carries a maximum
sentence of 20 years imprisonment – quite
apart from being grossly disproportionate, is very
diffi cult to enforce when it comes to social media.
How many statuses are posted every second on
Facebook? How many of those become public? How
many reactions are there to these postings? How do
you treat the ‘like’ reactions? In this recent incident,
there were 39 by the weekend. Are those who ‘liked’
the status all complicit in the crime? How about those
who reacted through death threats? And more importantly,
how can one establish ‘intent’ in cases of
postings on social media? How much thought is
actually given to each of these statuses before they
are published?
But more worrying perhaps is Section 282(2) of the
law, which carries up to four years in prison for
printing or publishing material containing racist
comments even if there was no intention to offend!
Is it fair to tar somebody (in most cases youth) for
life based on an act whose ramifi cations they didn’t
foresee or even intend?
In his preliminary report on Media Law and Ethics
in Mauritius, Geoffrey Robertson expresses his
concern about this section of the law and clearly
states that “The printer or publisher should only be
liable if he or she knows the nature of the material
and publishes it reckless as to the consequence that
it will stir up racial hatred.”
Technology has moved so fast these last few years
and the ‘citizen journalist’ now is busy posting all
sorts of comments in all sorts of social media. These
views commit only the writer, not an organised body
or publication. Many are written on the spur of the
moment. There is no moderator or editor to decide
what material might be liable. Our laws need to be
reviewed to accommodate that. Right now, liability
seems to be dictated by the Facebook reactions and
the number of people who take to the streets. “Serious
criminal liability should, in my view, be contingent
upon an intention to commit the crime,” says
Geoffrey Robertson. In many of the ugly and abhorrent
random postings, there is none.

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