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MV-trial: Court showed it understands form and impact of online harassment

By Maria Pettersson (Chief Editor of the Union magazine, Journalisti)

‘Targeting’ and ‘tagging’ were words that cropped up in the court verdict of the MV-magazine trial, which sentenced Ilja Janitskin to prison for 22 months and gave Johan Bäckman a one-year suspended sentence. The two were also ordered to pay damages and compensation amounting to some €136 000.

It’s apparent from the 178-page judgement that the Helsinki District Court was conversant with the forms of online abuse take and their impact. This is important in terms of the work of journalists, because the abuse directed at them mainly takes place online and entails targeting. Here are five observations that emerge from the judgement.

1) The court took a stand on targeting

Targeting is a situation where someone intentionally incites other internet users to attack an individual. Targeting may be direct (“Go and tell X how crap their ideas are”) or indirect (“Wow, isn’t X’s point idiotic!”). Indirect targeting is harder to demonstrate because it doesn’t contain a direct instruction. But it is a case of targeting if the writer nevertheless knows from experience that his/her followers will respond by berating the person mentioned in the message.

Here, the court took a position on targeting and made use of the neologism.

Concerning Johan Bäckman, the court stated:

Bäckman’s conduct caused other people to persecute, harass and target [journalist Jessikka] Aro.

The court therefore considered that the instigator, or the one doing the targeting, is at least partially culpable for this sort of conduct. Finnish law recognises the crime of incitement, but a targeting indictment comes under persecution. So, according to the District Court, targeting is a form of persecution.

2) Messaging is considered in its entirety and tagging is counted as an element  of persecution

Journalists and others active in society are harassed by message bombing. They get sent scores, maybe hundreds, of messages none of which by itself bears the legal hallmarks of threat, persecution or defamation, but which en masse make the recipient’s life very hard.

In its judgement, the court said of Bäckman that

individually the messages were not especially intimidating or disturbing, but their content and tone were demeaning and derisive of Aro, they were brought to the attention of several people and Aro was notified of all of them by tagging her Twitter username in the message…

and

Regardless of the minor significance of the individual messages, considered as a whole and taken in context, the messages can be regarded as likely to at least cause distress to Aho.  Although Bäckman’s actions have involved messaging and writing that are of minor significance taken individually, as well as concerning a gift sent to Aro, the elements of the conduct of the defendant towards the plaintiff must be considered as constituting a coherent whole with a unified motivational basis.

With online harassment, it is rare that a single message would cause blind distress. Rather, it’s floods of messages that cause distress. Tagging can also be used to try to involve the target in an acrimonious discussion or to show that there’s an online discussion taking place concerning the target of the harassment, but which the person concerned cannot influence. Both are likely to induce anxiety and a feeling of losing control.

3) Journalists is not automatically a public figures due to their work

When harassing journalists, perpetrators often reiterate that journalists should withstand tougher than normal criticism, because due to their work they are public figures and exercise power in society. The court stated that while journalistic work is public, the journalist is not automatically a public figure. Neither does being active online or public speaking make a journalist a public figure.

The District Court considers that as a journalist for Yle Ltd [the Finnish Broadcasting Company] Aro did not work in a public capacity or in a job or other such public position that the matter could be considered a criticism related to the plaintiff’s position in society. [–] Though the mendacious and disparaging information now presented by Janitskin are related to a person in the service of Yle Ltd, which is supported by tax revenue, the articles in question have not promoted public debate, rather they have been aimed at the deliberate public destruction of Aro’s professional and personal reputation. 

4) Derisive photo manipulation or dissemination are not OK

According to the court, a photo of Aro was attached to a picture do to with drugs and repeatedly in other indicative contexts. Degrading, grotesque and obscene versions of her photograph were also generated.

Image editing and manipulation are an inseparable part of the online culture. This includes caricatures of public figures. The court considered that these too have their limit, and that below a certain level they can no longer be regarded as satire but as pure harassment.

5) The chief editor of an online publication has a chief editor’s responsibility  

Iljs Janitskin’s defence argued that Janitskin was not responsible for the content of MV-magazine’s articles or comments because he had not personally written them. The court thought otherwise. MV-magazine was clearly a publication that had a chief editor, and the law stipulates that the chief editor is responsible for the magazine’s content.

The District Court, on the basis of the foregoing considerations, considers that Janitskin was, as editor of MV-magazine from 2014 at least until January 2018, the person responsible for its content. Janitskin thus ultimately decided on all the material published and disseminated in the online publication, regardless of who wrote for the magazine.

The court’s findings will not put an end to the online harassment of journalists, but they show that it can carry prison terms. Hopefully, this will prompt abusers to think twice about what they do.

The hope too is also that the police will follow the example of the Helsinki District Court and begin to better understand online abuse, and investigate it more vigorously. Many journalists have turned to the police in vain, and finally been given the message that the investigation of their case would be closed – sometimes on quite a trivial basis. There’s also a need for support from politicians. Online harassment and hate speech messaging must be subject to prosecution.

It is unreasonable that victims have to spend weeks digging up abusive material about themselves from the internet cesspit so that a preliminary investigation can get started.