Trolls, trailers and ferries

by Chris Oswald

Published: 16 Aug 2015

How can a case about ferries in Estonia help prevent hate speech against Gypsy Travellers on internet sites?

It’s now ten years since the Commission for Racial Equality issued guidance to journalists about reporting on Gypsy Traveller stories, a publication that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has now updated twice.

We update it out of concern about the practice by newspapers of not moderating bulletin boards underneath stories about Gypsy Travellers, where offensive and threatening comments can be left for weeks or months.

Up until now the police have focussed on locating the individual responsible for posting the comments and if possible charging them. It wasn’t felt that the newspaper could itself be held accountable.

Well, a new judgment about Estonian ferries has turned that on its head.

In 2006 Delfi AS - one of Estonia’s largest internet news sites - published an article about proposed changes to ferry routes which would inconvenience local people.  The online story quickly filled with offensive comments and threats to the ferry company and its owners. It took Delfi 6 weeks to remove the posts. During those 6 weeks the posts festered for all to see.

Was this just robust freedom of expression or something worse?

The Estonian courts found that the comments were defamatory and that Delfi was responsible. The case was appealed and finally in June a definitive judgment emerged from the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Grand Chamber found that the comments left on the site constituted hate speech and incitement to violence. By inviting readers to comment on stories, Delfi had a responsibility to moderate their site and remove hate speech. In particular the court found that the steps taken by Delfi were insufficient. Delfi relied on their readers to report offensive comments and an electronic system to catch obscenities, but neither of these “safeguards” worked.

So, what’s this got to do with Gypsy Travellers?

Well the practice of non moderation is alive and well in Scotland. I regularly see examples of what I can only describe as hatred on the bulletin boards of some Scottish newspapers – particularly when the story above is about Gypsy Travellers. Recently I’ve seen comments like 'shoot them!', 'burn them out'  or suggestions that '…a group of balaclava wearing heavies with baseball bats in the middle of the night…' should visit, alongside some choice racist epithets.

This goes way beyond freedom of expression – it’s offensive and dangerous, no matter what the Gypsy Travellers were up to.

It’s a fair jump from car ferries to Travellers’ trailers, but the principle is the same. If an online editor was under any illusion that a 'no moderation' policy was the safest way of avoiding repercussions, the Grand Chamber has just sunk that boat for them.  It is well-established that threats and hate speech go well beyond what is protected as freedom of expression.  Applying the principles of Delfi to the Scottish press it seems that:

  • Hate speech and threats go way beyond what is considered to be freedom of expression.
  • Not moderating your site for hate speech or threats means you can be held responsible for publishing the comments
  • Online news feeds have to anticipate hate speech and take sufficient steps to prevent it. That means doing more than saying “we don’t tolerate it”

The right to freedom of expression has been a hard won battle and limiting it isn’t in anyone’s interests. While people may be hurt or offended by others’ opinions, we live in a diverse society where discussion and debate is not just healthy, it’s critical to a functioning democracy.  But when free expression becomes a vehicle for threats and intimidation, it is right to check it.

If you want to know more about the Commission’s position on freedom of expression, have a look at our guidance here.

And if you want to read our guidance for journalists on reporting Gypsy Traveller stories, you can find it here.