Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Editorial | Lord Gifford’s discordant tambourine

Published:Wednesday | March 22, 2017 | 3:00 AM

Anthony Gifford, the British peer who has made Jamaica his home, is a lawyer of sharp intellect whose heightened social conscience has made him an indefatigable campaigner for justice and human rights around the world.

It is hardly surprising that he would be a supporter of the recently emerged group, Tambourine Army, and their radical advocacy against the sexual abuse of women and children. That is his right.

But in his zeal to embrace not only the ideals, but seemingly the tactics of this group, or at least those of one of its founders, Latoya Nugent, Lord Gifford is engaged in an abandonment of logic that would blunt the principal weapon he has wielded in his human-rights battles: the principles of law.

In recent months, Ms Nugent has waged a campaign on social media of naming and shaming alleged sexual predators and statutory rapists, some of whom, apparently, have had no formal complaints made against them and are under no investigation by law-enforcement agencies. She was arrested under Jamaica's cybercrimes laws, which make it an offence to distribute, by computer, information "that is (a) obscene, constitutes a threat, or is menacing in nature; and (b) with the intention to harass any person or cause harm, or the apprehension of harm, to any person or property".

Lord Gifford, in his article in this newspaper, is right about the original intent of the clause: to protect persons, primarily women, from Internet trolls, including some who engage in so-called revenge porn. But law, like circumstance, is dynamic and, as Lord Gifford would probably agree, ought to be gender-neutral.

Men, too, can be, and are, trolled in cyberspace. Beyond being defamed - for which there can be some remedy in civil action - like women, men can also be subjected to menace and harassment, leading to criminal harm. Put another way, we are all potential victims of vigilantism and cyber-lynching, whose scope is not as easily containable as in the natural world. Indeed, having been so trolled, a perceived misbehaver, even if she or he proves innocent, may well have been set up for assault.

 

Liberal democracy

 

Lord Gifford makes an observation that is vital to the existence of a liberal democracy - that it rests on the rule of law, in which crimes are investigated and their perpetrators punished. "The presumption of innocence," he wrote, "means that we should not label people guilty until they have been so found after a fair trial."

But then he appears willing to weaken that fundamental principle because of the long time it takes for cases to be heard, and the effect this has on victims and accused, against his "full support" for Tambourine Army. The lasting perception: a seeming endorsement of cyber-lynching, once victims can sue for defamation.

We make two further points:

An overburdened and under-resourced justice system is not an argument for having people, Trump-style, tried and convicted and placed on the rack via Twitter, or other social media. It is a case for fixing the justice system.

There may well be an argument that the trolling law could be manipulated as a back-door route to the reintroduction of criminal libel. That's worthy of debate, but protection from trolling can't only be determined by how chromosomes happen to be paired.