Padraig Reidy: A disgraceful use of the Communications Act

Is Islam “satanic”?

Personally, I don’t believe Satan, or God, exist, so it’s not a question I give a great deal of time to.

Salman Rushdie gave it some thought. The title of The Satanic Verses comes from an old idea that there may have been parts of the Sura that were false. Specifically, a concession to the polytheism of the pre-Islamic Meccans to whom Muhammad preached: “And see ye not Lat and Ozza, And Manat the third besides? These are exalted Females, And verily their intercession is to be hoped for.”

Muhammad was, the story goes, tricked into saying these lines by Satan. The Angel Gabriel later told Muhammad he had been deceived, and he recanted.

For Thought-For-The-Day types, it’s a nice little “don’t believe everything you read” lesson. For literary types, it may even be seen as an interesting early example of an unreliable narrator. Muhammad trusted the angel to tell him the truth: but at that moment, the angel was not who he seemed.

I sincerely doubt Northern Ireland’s Pastor James McConnell has much truck with the idea of unreliable narration. Or even fiction, for that matter. McConnell is the type of person who believes that if someone is going to go to the trouble of writing a thing down in a book, then that thing should be true.

A book? No. The Book. There is one book for the pastor. It’s called the Bible, and it’s got everything you need. You might read other books, but they’ll be books about the Book. Books explaining in great detail just how great the Book is. What there are not, cannot be, are other the Books.

So the Bible can be true, or the Quran can be true: but they can’t both be true. And if the Quran is false, but Islam claims it is true, then Islam must be wicked. Satanic, even.

In May last year, Pastor McConnell, like many of his ilk, was very exercised by the story of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, who had reputedly been sentenced to death in Sudan after converting from Islam to Christianity. Here was further proof, septuagenarian McConnell preached to the congregation at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, that “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.” There may be good Muslims in the UK, he said, but he didn’t trust them. Enoch Powell was right, McConnell said, to predict “rivers of blood”.

McConnell seemed to know this was going to get him in trouble. “The time will come in this land and in this nation,” he preambled, “to say such things will be an offence to the law.”

Turns out, the pastor was half-right at least in this much. Last week, Northern Irish prosecutors announced that McConnell would face prosecution for his sermon. For inciting religious hatred? No, too obvious. McConnell, now retired and said to be in declining health, will be prosecuted under Section 127 of the Communications Act.

Section 127 is, free-speech nerds may recall, the piece of legislation that pertains to the sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

It’s the one that led to the Paul Chambers “Twitter Joke Trial” case, one of the great rallying points of online free speech in recent years. In January 2010 Chambers joked online that he would blow up Doncaster Robin Hood airport if his flight to Belfast (always Belfast!) to meet his girlfriend was cancelled. He was convicted, even though every single person involved in the case acknowledged that he had been joking, including the airport security, who did not for one second treat the tweet seriously, even as a hoax.

Chambers was convicted. Eventually, in June 2012, the conviction was quashed. Questions were raised about why then-Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer had persisted in pursuing the case. For his part, Starmer launched a consultation to draft guidelines on when the Communications Act provisions should and should not be used (this writer took part in the meetings and submitted written evidence).

During that process, Starmer was fond of pointing out (correctly) that the Communications Act had been designed to protect telephone operators from heavy breathers. It had nothing to do with stupid jokes on the internet.

And it certainly had nothing at all to do with the online streaming of sermons by fundamentalist preachers.

Let there be no doubt: the prosecution of James McConnell under the Communications Act is a disgrace and a travesty. It is the action of a prosecution service more interested in appearing to be liberal than upholding justice and rights. If McConnell is suspected of being guilty of incitement, then prosecute him under that law. But the deployment of the catch-all Communications Act, in a situation it was very obviously not designed for, suggests prosecutors were not confident of that case and have instead reached for the vaguest charge possible.

When one combines this latest prosecution with the recent “gay cake” case, in which a Christian bakery in County Antrim was fined for refusing to decorate a cake with a pro-equal marriage message, it’s hard not to think the people of Protestant Ulster may, on this occasion, have some real fuel for the siege mentality that’s kept them going for so very long. It feels as if an attempt is being made to force liberalisation on Christians through the courts. It’s hard to imagine any outcome besides resentment, and Lord knows the “wee province” has enough of that already.

This column was published on 25 June 2015 at

Has Ireland reintroduced criminal libel?


(Image: Quka/Shutterstock)

A recent court ruling in Ireland could have reintroduced the concept of criminal libel to the state, despite criminal defamation offences being abolished as recently as 2009.

The case itself was one of a particularly grim relationship break up. Names are not available as the people involved were also locked in a criminal case in which the male partner was accused of rape and false imprisonment, though he was acquitted of both.

But the details available are: couple breaks up in January 2011. They remain in touch. In April 2011, man goes to woman’s house to, according to the Irish Times’s report “confront her over a perceived infidelity”. Man later leaves woman’s house, but not before stealing her phone. Man goes through woman’s messages, which suggest she has started a new relationship. Man opens woman’s Facebook on phone and posts remarks from her account, making it appear that she is presenting herself as a “whore” who would take “any offers”. Drink was a factor, as the Irish court reporting phrase goes.

This action led to a charge under the Criminal Damage Act 1991, under which “A person who without lawful excuse damages any property belonging to another intending to damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property” can find themselves liable to a large fine and up to 10 years in prison.

In this case, the defendant was found guilty and fined €2,000.

The judge, Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan, is reported to have asked how to assess the “damage” when nothing had actually been broken. Prosecutors replied that the case was in fact more akin to harassment and that the “damage” had been “reputational rather than monetary”.

The first question here is obvious: if the facts of the case were more akin to harassment, then why were charges not brought under Section 10 of Ireland’s Non-Fatal Offences Against The Person Act, which would cover anyone who “by his or her acts intentionally or recklessly, seriously interferes with the other’s peace and privacy or causes alarm, distress or harm to the other”? Wouldn’t this be the obvious piece of legislation to use?

But after that, there are a few more: Who actually owns a Facebook profile? And does reputation count as property? And crucially, has Mr Justice Sheehan created a criminal libel law?

Ireland has a complicated relationship with social media. On the one hand, to be plain about it, the big online companies create a lot of employment in Ireland. Facebook, Twitter and Google all employ a lot of people in the country. On the other hand, it is susceptible to the same moral panics as anywhere else, and in a small, largely homogenous country, panics can be enormously amplified.

When government minister Shane McEntee committed suicide in Christmas 2012, the tragic story somehow became conflated with social media and online bullying. McEntee’s brother blamed the minister’s death on “people downright abusing him on the social networks and no names attached and they can say whatever they like because there’s no face and no name”. But his daughter later refuted that claim, saying: “Dad didn’t use Twitter and wasn’t a huge fan of Facebook. So I don’t think you can blame that and I’m not going to start a campaign on that.”

The subsequent debate on social media bullying was almost tragic in its simplicity, the undisputed highlight being Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames describing to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Transport and Communications how young people are “literally raped on Facebook”.

As ever in discussions that involve social media, a generation gap opens up, or is invoked, between younger “natives” who supposedly instinctively understand the web, and a political and judicial class who are apparently hopelessly out of touch. There is certainly an element of truth to this (I have sat in courts and watched judges express utter bafflement at the very concept of Twitter), but in general, what is actually happening is legislators, magistrates and the judiciary are desperately trying to apply existing, supposedly universal laws to phenomena to which they are simply not suited. This is where controversy usually arises, for example in the UK’s use of public order laws when the only threat to public order is a Twitter mob — as in the case of jailed student Liam Stacey; or use of laws against menacing communications in instances where it’s clear no menace was intended — such as Britain’s now infamous Twitter Joke Trial.

In the current Irish case, it seems obvious that harassment would have been the more relevant charge, but in this instance, that’s not what we have to worry about. The real concern is that by apparently putting reputation in the category of property which can suffer damage, the court has now created a precedent where damage to a person’s reputation, whether by “fraping”, tweeting, or even just the getting facts wrong in a news story, could lead to criminal sanction.

And the very worst thing is that no one seems to have noticed.

From the introduction of the new blasphemy law onward, Ireland has seen a slow, stealthy erosion of free speech. It’s not clear what will get people to start paying attention, but the country needs to be more vigilant.

This article was posted on July 10, 2014 at

Is this America's Twitter Joke Trial?

Pennsylvania high school student Torre Scrimalli could face prison after sending a joke tweet

A US high-school student could face a criminal conviction and up to 14 years in prison after posting a joke on Twitter.

In a case reminiscent of the UK’s now-infamous “Twitter Joke Trial”, Scrimalli, 18, of Scranton, Pennsylvania has been arrested for “terroristic threats” after joking ahead of a local schools basketball game on 4 February:

“If there is a Facebook or twitter fight tonight over the HC MV game I will just blow up the schools and students involved. #goonsquad.”

The game was stopped in the first quarter and the venue evacuated.

According to local news station WNEP-TV, Scrimalli apologised, saying: “I had no intentions on scaring anyone or bringing violence into this. It was supposed to be a harmless tweet. I realised what it was after I posted it and I tried to get it off as soon as I could but I guess it was just too late.”

But authorities are pressing ahead with charges. Local Assistant District Attorney Gene Riccardo is quote as saying “Two municipalities, two school districts have been impacted by that decision so that’s why we’re going forward with these charges.”

Scrimalli was been released on $20,000 bail after h turned himself over to police on Tuesday night. Classmates and friends on Twitter have rallied around the hashtag #PrayForTorre.

The case comes as the United States debates weapon laws in the wake of December’s Sandy Hook school massacre, when 20 children and six adults were killed by a lone gunman.

Hat tip – Matt F