Published: 16 March 2012
Region: Great Britain
Pedja Urosevic & Patrick White
19-year-old Azhar Ahmed has been arrested and charged with a ‘racially aggravated public order offence’ by West Yorkshire Police after he posted a message on Facebook criticising the tendency to concentrate on the relatively few British lives lost in Afghanistan at the expense of losses among Afghan civilians.
The message reads:
‘People gassin about the deaths of Soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.. The women who have.been raped… The children who have been sliced up..! Your enemy’s were the Taliban not innocent harmful familys. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soldiers grave & wish him hell because that’s where he is going…[sic]’
In a police statement that was probably intended light-heartedly, a spokesperson said that Ahmed ‘didn't make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother.'
Facebook is designed for users to share media and exchange messages within a closed circle of friends which, depending on the number of friends a user chooses to include, can be seen as the distance equivalent to casual dinner conversation.
Yet this arrest signals the regrettable fact that in this day and age an unguarded comment can put you behind bars.
The lesson for the rest of us is to take great care when expressing controversial views over social networks.
Few of us have any understanding of how law enforcement agencies carry out surveillance on Facebook and the West Yorkshire Police is unlikely to shed any light on the practice.
Although you can always Google it yourself, the simple fact is this:
Real-time network traffic and analytics software is not just the product of a paranoid mind and they are available to governments, corporations and often anyone willing to pay for them.
People should understand that they have the capacity to make their comments personal and within a closed circle of friends. When they don’t do that, they put themselves at risk.
To most, there is no question that the death of soldiers fighting for their country is a dreadful thing, but many would also agree that citizens like Ahmed are entitled to express their opinion on the role played by soldiers around the world.
The complaint that media coverage of British lives lost is often excessive compared to the suffering of Afghans is not wholly unjustified.
Since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001 and throughout the occupation of Iraq, the names of deceased soldiers have been meticulously reported while civilian deaths are limited to a vague body count if not ignored completely.
The same double-standard caused widespread outrage during the 2009 Gaza conflict, when a dozen Israeli deaths gained mass coverage and were used to justify the military intervention that killed hundreds of innocent Palestinians.
More worryingly however is that there appears to be no justification for the charge of racially aggravated offence.
Clearly, the abuse in Ahmed’s text is directed at members of a profession, a profession which includes members of many races and from many backgrounds.
The charges seem to suggest that it is in fact Ahmed’s racial characteristics being used against him, and that he is less entitled to bad-mouth the British Armed Forces than an ethnically British 19-year-old with a typically British-sounding name.
This is a difficult subject, not least because the contents of this message are deeply offensive, particularly to the friends, relatives and colleagues of people serving in the armed forces.
Yet nothing in this message is racially aggravated. It is, if anything, an intemperate comment about the injustice of war and the uneven coverage of the victims of violence.
Free expression means that we have to live with the views of others, no matter how offensive, obnoxious or insensitive they may be. The law protects us from incitement to violence and speech which is driven by racial hatred. This comment is neither.
The fact that the police have reacted is itself dangerous because they appear to be bending rules in order to make them fit with the outrage that some people may feel in reading such a strong comment.
When the authorities bend the rules in this way we are all at risk. Limits on speech have to be narrowly defined and not subject to arbitrary interpretation. If they are it inevitably has a chilling effect on the right to free expression.
People often don’t make their points very well, and this is a good example of poor expression, but it shouldn’t lead to prosecution in a tolerant society.
The answer to this kind of speech is more speech – arguments that express clearly the other side of the story; that people killed in a war, even soldiers, deserve respect and a measure of humanity for the loss sustained by families and friends.