EDITORIAL: Perils of the web
Yesterday, Barbadian Omar Watson made his first appearance in court charged with the “offence of malicious communication”. As far as we are aware this is the first time in local history that someone has been so charged under the Computer Misuse Act.
Law and convention dictate that as a responsible newspaper we exercise great prudence on this subject since we are dealing with a matter before the court and we have no desire to offend the system or to prejudice the proceedings on either side.
However, there is no doubt that this is a most unusual development in Barbados – one in which the public interest will be considerable. In fact, based on the level of debate the case has provoked on social media platforms, it would be fair to say that a significant number of Barbadians are keeping a close watch on this.
Because of its precedent-setting nature, it is extremely important that all sides proceed with extreme caution, particularly since the matter involves a minister of the crown in a Government that is perceived as largely unpopular.
Already questions are being raised about whether authorities would have travelled in this direction had it been a “lesser” citizen.
And a not insignificant number of commentators on social media have been contrasting the comments that led to the charges with the usually robust language and metaphoric descriptions that characterise political platforms during general election campaigns, which have been known to attract civil rather than criminal sanction.
We take the opportunity to invite the hierarchy of the police force, given the obvious high public interest in this matter, to look again at the communications disseminated by its public relations department about this matter.
The presumption of innocence and the force’s obligation not to prejudice the case of the accused should have raised an immediate red flag against the language used. It is the court that will determine guilt or innocence and the police force, even in its communications, must speak to allegations and charges, not draw conclusions.
That having been said, however, it is clear that there is an equally strong, if not stronger, case for all persons using the Internet to conduct themselves in a manner that respects the basic rights of individuals.
Certainly there is more than ample evidence to support the position that persons of prominence, whether they are business professionals, politicians, entertainers or just well-known by virtue of being related to or associated with someone else, are often unfairly targeted by individuals who take refuge within the crowd that frequents the Web.
The test of what is “menacing in character”, can cause “annoyance, distress and anxiety”, will most likely be determined by the time this matter is concluded, but in the meanwhile we would have a much more caring society if social media commentators followed the Biblical injunction to treat others as they would wish to be treated.
Given the reach of the Internet, the old maxim “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”, has proven repeatedly to be a gross error.
The Internet is a powerful tool and the words we post there can and do cut deeper than the proverbial kitchen knife.