Terror is no laughing matter – lessons from the #twitterjoketrial


Twitter and Facebook are great outlets for one-liners and satire, but police and security agencies are not known for their sense of humour. Trainee accountant Paul Chambers, 27, learned that the hard way when he was arrested on UK terrorism charges for jokingly tweeting a threat to blow up a British airport. Air traffic was delayed by a heavy snowfall and Chambers was desperate to visit a female friend in Northern Ireland, so he light-heartedly tweeted to her and his 650 followers: ‘C***! Robin Hood Airport closed. You have got a week to get your s*** together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!’ Police swooped a week later and he was questioned on the terrorism charges before being convicted and fined £1,000 on a lesser charge of causing nuisance. He later won an appeal in the High Court when the Lord Chief Justice agreed it had been a humorous remark rather than a threat. The case became known as the ‘Twitter joke trial’. I’m fairly confident Chambers would not go through all that angst again over a not so witty one-liner.

Journalist, blogger, tweeter and lawyer David Allen Green ( @DavidAllenGreen ‘Jack of Kent’ ) spoke recently on the issue to the Open Rights Group.

Across the English Channel, 23-year-old unemployed Frenchman François Cousteix was surprised one evening to find French police and US FBI agents arrive at his front door. Operating under the name ‘Hacker Croll’, he had made it his hobby to access celebrities’ social media accounts just for fun. He had accessed the social media account of celebrity Britney Spears but came to international security agencies’ attention when he hacked into the Twitter account of US President Barack Obama. He escaped with a five month parole sentence.

There is a simple lesson from these cases: do not joke about national security matters.

Governments throughout the world ramped up their national security laws in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001. Even in countries with a high regard for civil liberties and free expression, new powers were handed to security agencies and police to aid in the detection and arrest of suspected terrorists. Pressure mounted in western democracies for even tougher laws after the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 and the 7/7 London attacks in 2005.

Publishing restrictions in the name of national security existed long before 9/11. Sedition and treason laws encouraging public unrest, violence and the overthrow of rulers date back to feudal times when governments tried to enforce loyalty upon ordinary citizens. While many countries have phased out these ancient crimes, such laws are still used in some places as mechanisms for intimidation and repression. Anti-terrorism laws were also used in western democracies well prior to 2001. The UK passed special laws to respond to Irish Republican Army terrorism throughout the 20th century, while New Zealand introduced new restrictions after the French bombing of the Greenpeace boat the Rainbow Warrior in 1985.

But the early 21st century attacks on the West triggered a wave of new anti-terror laws impacting on the free expression of journalists and Internet users. Hundreds of anti-terror laws were introduced in the first decade of the 21st century under the banner of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

America led the way with its USA ‘Patriot’ Act of 2001, in which the letters stand for: ‘Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism’. President Barack Obama’s administration extended the legislation for a further four years from 2011.

Others followed suit, including the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Ottawa software developer Momin Khawaja became the first person charged under Canada’s anti-terror laws but in 2011 challenged his conviction on constitutional grounds. In Australia, Belal Saadalah Khazaal was sentenced to 12 years in jail in 2009 for ‘making a document connected with assistance in a terrorist act’ after he created an e-book titled “Provisions on the Rules of Jihad” which allegedly targeted foreign governments and leaders. The High Court upheld his conviction in 2012.

There were too many anti-terror laws introduced internationally to detail here, but some can impact upon you if you are a cyber-journalist or blogger. They include:

  • Increased surveillance powers for spy agencies and police;
  • New detention and questioning regimes;
  • Seizure of notes and computer archives;
  • Exposing confidential sources to identification;
  • Closing certain court proceedings so they are unreportable;
  • Exposing bloggers to fines and jail if they report on some anti-terror operations;
  • Making it an offence to merely ‘associate’ or ‘communicate’ with those suspected of security crimes; and
  • Exposing bloggers and social media users to criminal charges if you publish anything seen as inciting terrorism.

Governments also go straight to search engines and ISPs and demand they remove material and, as Google’s Transparency Report documents, they often comply. But some have complained Google and Youtube have not responded quickly enough when asked to take down terrorism material. Burst.net certainly acted fast when the FBI advised it that some blogs it hosted under the free WordPress blogetery.com site contained terrorist material suspected of being used by the group al-Qaeda. It shut the site down, along with the 70,000 blogs it hosted. Blogetery resurfaced a month later under a different host.

The United Nations introduced a range of protocols that countries adopt minimum standards for combating terrorism. At the same time, the OECD acted to encourage Internet freedom by asking nations to open up cyberspace to freer and speedier communication. To the average blogger, the two positions might seem at odds.

A Mexican radio commentator and a maths tutor were jailed and faced a maximum 30 year prison sentence in 2011 on terrorism and sabotage charges after they tweeted false reports that gunmen were attacking schools in the city of Veracruz. The misinformation prompted parents to panic and some were involved motor accidents as they rushed to fetch their children.

“Here, there were 26 car accidents, or people left their cars in the middle of the streets to run and pick up their children, because they thought these things were occurring at their kids’ schools,” an official told Associated Press. The false reports followed weeks of gangland violence in the city.

“My sister-in-law just called me all upset, they just kidnapped five children from the school,” tutor Gilberto Martinez Vera allegedly tweeted. He followed that message with: “I don’t know what time it happened, but it’s true.” The other accused had retweeted the false reports to her followers. Experts described the tweeting as poor use of the medium, but not deserving of terrorism charges.

[Adapted from my book, Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued. A Global Guide to the Law for Anyone Writing Online. (Allen & Unwin, 2012).

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2012

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