“I’m paying the price for your freedom”: Online harassment once again in the spotlight

June 17, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

On Thursday 3rd January, thirteen men went on trial in France accused of online harassment over abusive messages sent to a teenage girl over anti-Islamic videos.

What does this mean?

In January 2020, the then 16-year-old, identified only as Mila, posted a video to Instagram in which she criticised Islam as a religion based on “nothing but hate”. In the months that followed, she received more than 100,000 abusive messages.

These messages included threats to “do you like Samuel Paty”, referring to the Parisian school teacher who was beheaded in October 2020. Paty had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression. Mila posted another similar video, on TikTok this time, after the killing of Paty.

After receiving the threats, Mila was placed under police protection with her family in Villefontaine, a town near Lyon. She was forced to change schools and ultimately switch to online learning. Her lawyer reported she has been forced into a reclusive lifestyle, unable to go outside for fear of harassment and worse if she was to venture out.

Thirteen of those who sent such messages have been identified by French authorities and charged with online harassment, with some also charged with threatening death or other criminal acts.

What's the big picture effect?

Emmanuel Macron, the French President, said in a statement that the law is clear, in France, people “have the right to blaspheme, to criticise and caricature religions”. France has been steadfast in its defence of this right in recent times, with its secularism having been criticised by some as oppressive to Islam and provoking protests in Muslim countries. It has enacted several laws that supposedly target Islam over other religions. For example, the “burka ban”, which prohibited the wearing of religious imagery in public, and restrictions to homeschooling, which was reported to target Quranic schools.

Defence lawyers for the thirteen accused have argued that it is unfair for thirteen individuals to be punished for thousands who took advantage of the anonymity offered online. They argue that the messages represent the kind of visceral, instant reactions which take place on social media every day, which, whilst “stupid”, do not deserve punishment in the law.

Online harassment carries a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to €30,000. Death threats can be punished by up to three years in prison. Two people have already received prison sentences for death threats sent to Mila.

Mila, meanwhile, has attracted the admiration and support of groups from the political right, as a bastion of free speech. Rival hashtags of #JeSuisMila (I am Mila) and #JeNeSuisPasMila (I am not Mila) have been circulating ever since the first video. Now 18, she is due to publish a book this month, entitled I’m Paying the Price for your Freedom, about her experiences.

At the same time, in the UK, Parliament is considering passing a new online safety bill, which, among other things, would moderate what could be posted on social media platforms. This forms part of a debate raging both in Europe and, more intensely, in America, as to how to strike the balance between freedom of speech and the hateful things which are so often found on its fringes, between restricting censorship and regulating Big Tech.

As the culture wars continue to run rampant, how can legislatures douse the flames?

Report written by Joshua White

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