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Jail sentence for Twitter joke

August 07, 2017
topic:Digital Rights
tags:#Cassandra Vera, #ETA, #freedom of speech, #social networks, #Twitter
located:Spain, Colombia
by:Pablo Pérez Álvarez
The recent prison sentence (suspended) in Spain for a young person for making jokes on Twitter about the murder by terrorist organization ETA of a government president has raised criticism of the justice system, and is seen as a barrier to the freedom of speech.

But it has also initiated a debate about the internauts’ liabilities for their comments on social networks.

In July, several of the most renowned Colombian journalists asked for penal action against former president Álvaro Uribe after he called one of their colleagues a “child rapist” in a tweet. Some days before, a Finnish mechanic was fined 8,000 euros for posting a video on Facebook of some thieves who were recorded breaking into his garage. He was punished for displaying a crime without the sanction of a judge. Also in Spain, a man has been charged with an accusation of offending the religious feelings of people, because of a photomontage of a Christ sculpture with his own face posted on Instagram.

Different cases, different situations, people with different influence capacities, but the same liabilities?

One of the main virtues credited to the web 2.0 is the promotion of free speech through social networks. Suddenly, any citizen with internet access can reach millions of people, without the need of the media. Nevertheless, what wasn’t clear was that this power might involve also an equal responsibility; that in some countries it is already bringing many internauts to the courts of law.

Many people use social networks to tell the world the tiniest details about their lives, however irrelevant they may be. Others like to tweet news. Some express their opinions in an entirely uninhibited way, no matter if they are sensible and properly argued or completely unreasonable and impulsive. They have been doing that all their lives, only now they may be listened be millions. The problem is determining when these opinions may be an offense or defamation punishable by the justice.

Anybody can speak their minds over a coffee chat with friends; even slander, in a moderate to an immoderate way, a politician or a public figure, without consequences. But, is that the same as doing it on Twitter or Facebook, where millions of people –even those mentioned- can see it?

And, if this comments are punishable in the courts of law, who decides which ones, among the millions of posts pouring every minute in the social networks, are to be prosecuted and which ones are not?

The case of the Spanish Cassandra Vera is paradigmatic. This young History student got a one-year prison sentence last March. She was judged by the Audiencia Nacional, a special and exceptional high court with competences over particularly serious crimes such as organised crime, terrorism or drug trafficking. It condemned her for the humiliation of terrorism’s victims.

More precisely, one victim: the admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, killed in a bomb-attack by ETA, the terrorist group that demanded the independence of the Basque Country. By the time he was murdered, in 1973, he was the right-hand man of the dictator Francisco Franco and president of the government of the regime. The bomb was so powerful that Carrero Blanco’s car was thrown to a 65-feet building’s rooftop.

This fact, and Carrero Blanco being one of the main figures of the repressive dictatorship, turn that attack into the subject of lots of cheap jokes, still today. Even comedians, journalists, and other public figures have mocked of it in TV shows and books.

So, when Cassandra posted several of these jokes in her Twitter account, she couldn’t imagine that she would be the target of a controversial police operation that searched in the social networks jokes and offensive comments against the victims of ETA and Grapo, a Maoist terrorist group. ETA hasn’t attempted an attack since 2010 and six years ago declared a permanent ceasefire and the cessation of its armed activity. Grapo has been disbanded since 2007.

Cassandra hasn’t been sent to jail because in Spain prison sentences under two years are suspended. But she won’t be able to become a teacher, as she planned to, because of the disqualification. “They have ruined my life”, she has complained.

In the different stages of the police operation, over 70 people have been arrested. Several of them have already been sentenced to prison. Among them, César Strawberry, a hip hop singer because of a series of tweets. Just like Cassandra, the musician has got a suspended one-year prison sentence for “inciting hatred” and “glorifying terrorism” in the social networks.

International Amnesty (IA) has criticised some of these sentences as the NGO reckons that the expressions judged “are covered by the exercise of the freedom of expression and under no circumstance should be the subject of a criminal proceeding”.

Daniel Canales, an Amnesty speaker in Spain, acknowledges that “there are messages that may be offensive, alarming in terms of tolerance, civility and respect, in this case to the victims of terrorism”, but, he adds, “they never may be treated as a criminal offense”.

Carlos Sánchez Almeida, a lawyer specialising in computer-related crimes and freedom of speech on the internet, criticises that the criminal code article condemning the humiliation to victims of terrorism “has an ambiguous and confusing formulation, enabling this kind of excesses”. Besides, he argues that these crime types should be considered as another kind of hate crime and not being the competence of a special court.

He also remarks that in these cases the judges haven’t taken account in their sentences of the context of the comments nor their implications. For a start, they didn’t consider that not one of the armed organizations they referred to is currently active.

Nor did they consider the fact that most of the prosecuted’s comments had an insignificant impact. “Social networks facilitate a wider spread of the messages, but when they judge these cases they must examine the effective diffusion of every post”, he says.

“This possibility of a wider spread is directly related to the number of followers of the author of the message. The more followers, the more likely it is that somebody retweet it, and the retweet multiplies the diffusion of the message”, explains the lawyer.

“This is what judged must consider when measuring the seriousness of the tweet and the punishment they have to apply. It’s not the same if they are read by two people or by three million”, he adds.

A recent sentence by the Spanish Supreme Court on an appeal to the Strawberry sentence upholds these arguments, as it indicates that the singer can’t be condemned for glorifying terrorism because of the “absence of a terrorist violence context caused by Grapo, disappeared some years ago, and because there’s not any replica of the accused posts”.

To Sánchez Almeida, there’s a difference between “an anonymous person praising a terrorist organization and a political, with thousand of followers, doing so”. That is to say, the legal liability of each one for the same comment would depend on their number of followers.

Several freedom of speech defense organizations have deplored this kind of police operations foster the self-censorship on the internet. “Some people inquired by IA have expressed this self-censorship. They have realised that post messages in the social networks may have serious consequences”, says Daniel Canales.

In addition to this, it’s been questioned the police discretion to select the kind of crimes to search in internet. Ironically, after her arrest, Cassandra has been severely harassed through the social networks, and even in the traditional media, for being transsexual and nobody has been punished for it.

“Of course, we must avoid the hate messages because they are a real danger to social harmony: the incitement to discriminate for being a refugee or for ideological reasons and, of course, the humiliation of any victim must be prosecuted”, affirms Sánchez Almeida.

The problem, he adds, is that they are “chasing many irrelevant offenses, actions that are not really crimes, and this way they are obstructing the administration of justice, that should be focusing on serious computer-related crimes, like hacking child pornography”.

Article written by:
pablo perez
Pablo Pérez Álvarez
Spain Colombia
Embed from Getty Images
The power people have with twitter nowadays might involve also an equal responsibility, that in some countries it is already bringing many internauts to the courts of law.
Embed from Getty Images
Cassandra hasn’t been sent to jail because in Spain prison sentences under two years are suspended. But she won’t be able to become a teacher, as she planned to, because of the disqualification. “They have ruined my life”, she has complained.
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