Monday 21 October 2019

Gardaí in process of identifying individuals who 'posted racist abuse online' forcing young family to leave Ireland

Abuse: Fiona Ryan and her partner Jon Mathis appeared in an ad for Lidl with their 22-month-old son Jonah
Abuse: Fiona Ryan and her partner Jon Mathis appeared in an ad for Lidl with their 22-month-old son Jonah

Breda Heffernan and Adrian Weckler

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has said gardai are in the process of identifying individuals who allegedly posted racist abuse online forcing a young family to leave Ireland.

Fiona Ryan from Co Meath, her fiancé Jonathan Mathis, from the Cotswolds in England, and their one-year-old son Jonah appeared in a television and billboard campaign for supermarket Lidl last month.

However a number of racist messages were posted on social media about the family and they have since left the country to return to England after receiving a threat that left them fearing for their lives.

Speaking in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, this morning as he launched the Garda's new three-year diversity and integration strategy, Commissioner Harris said officers are in the process of identifying those behind the abuse.

"We remain in contact with the Ryan family. We are now in the process of identifying individuals, identifying those we believe are suspects of offences that may have been committed.

"And then we will go through a process of interviewing them, gathering evidence and reporting that matter to the DPP.

"There's an investigation on-going with the outcome of bringing individuals to justice," he added.

The new strategy defines a hate crime as any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be, in whole or in part, motivated by hostility or prejudice based on age, disability, race, colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender.

Over the three years of the strategy enhanced reporting, recording, investigating and prosecuting mechanisms will be put in place in respect of hate crime.

It will also see "non-crime hate incidents" recorded on the Garda's Pulse database for the first time.

An initial online reporting facility for hate crime will also be developed.

Also speaking at the launch minister of state David Stanton said: "Actions such as this go to the heart of what is needed - concrete steps to ensure that all groups and communities in an increasingly diverse society have the confidence that they are respected, valued and safe."

He said the Department of Justice is reviewing the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 and a public consultation on the act is due to start shortly.

It is hoped the strategy will lead to improved trust and confidence in An Garda Siochana by all sections of society.

In a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice hearing held today investigating online harassment, Twitter Ireland executives said that self-regulation was “broadly” working and that online solidarity with the couple affected might be considered a mitigating factor in assessing Twitter’s overall role in the matter.

“I can't speak to the individual circumstances of any one particular account,” said Karen White, director of public policy for Twitter in Europe, when asked about the Fiona Ryan and Jonathan Mathis case.

“But we have very robust policies in place at Twitter, particularly around abusive behaviour and hateful conduct and violent threats. And when we're made aware of that type of content, there's a range of enforcement actions that we can take.”

Fianna Fáil T.D. was unhappy with the answer, saying that simple deletion of the tweet is “a really weak enforcement consequence for the person who's brought such hatred to [victims’] lives”. He asked whether deleting a single tweet was “sufficient” in terms of enforcement or whether there should not be “a much greater consequence for the person who publishes that tweet”.

Ms White defended the social network’s level of enforcement.

“The reason that's sufficient is that there is a purpose there in trying to educate that particular user that they have broken the rules,” she said.

“Consistent rule violations will result in permanent suspension. If a user engages in violent tracks, for example, that could lead to the permanent suspension of their account.

"Then if law enforcement were to trigger an investigation on the back of behaviour like that, we can work with them as part of their as part of their investigation.”

Ms White’s Twitter public policy colleague, Ronan Costello, suggested that other tweets supportive of the couple and castigating the original offending tweet might be considered a mitigating factor in assessing the effect and overall responsibility of the social network.

“When someone tweets something that the majority of Twitter users find distasteful or offensive, we often see a consensus of solidarity around the opposing point of view.”

Asked whether this promoted a form of “mob response”, Mr Costello said that the principle of “counter speech” was acknowledged as a form of mitigation.

”This notion of counter speech has been established for several years now,” he said. “We have been part of the EU Code of Conduct and in January held a workshop where participants included the Council, Commission and a range of NGOs.

"The purpose of that was to create a counter speech campaign that would be rolled out across Europe and that would reject hate speech and that would encourage people to take an alternative view.”

Mr Costello cited recent “successful referendum campaigns here in Ireland in the last few years” as examples of how “a positive, inclusive narrative in our society” was fostered “by creating counter narratives around conversations that could have taken a negative turn“.

Google Ireland’s government affairs and policy manager, Ryan Meade, added that posts and comments about “issues such as migration” were not always against the social network’s community rules.

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