Coffee House

What kind of regime imprisons people for what they tweet? Oh, hang on…

4 November 2012

The King of Bahrain certainly doesn’t seem to like it up him. In this week’s Spectator, Kirsty Walker said her last complaint – before quitting journalism — was from the King objecting to her being rude about his regime. A Bahraini man has just been sentenced to six months in jail for ‘defaming’ the king on Twitter. Three similar Twitter users are up on similar charges next week. David Cameron should be making clear how appalled he is at this repression – except he is not in a very good position to comment.

After last year’s riots, police threatened to arrest users for inciting the looters. It seemed daft: would you really arrest people for writing posts, mostly moronic, on Twitter? Nowadays we regularly hear stories about members of the public being arrested for posting their ramblings on the site. During the Olympics one user was arrested for tweeting abuse at the diver Tom Daley, while another was jailed for almost two months for posting racist comments about a footballer. And it’s not just Twitter – Facebook users have also been jailed for similar postings. There is a fundamental difference in degree between what Brits can say, and what Bahrainis can say. But the idea of imprisoning people for what they say rather than what they do is accepted by both.

In the US, the First Amendment prevents congress from limiting peoples’ freedom of speech, thereby stopping the US courts for imposing the kind of penalties that both the British – and now the Bahraini courts – have become such fans of. In Britain, freedom of speech is not very well defended at all. The odds are that Lord Justice Leveson will propose that government tries to regulate the press, which as Alexander Chancellor says in the current Spectator, would be unthinkable in America.

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    The phone and computer hacking at News International was part of C.I.A spying operation embedded within the organisation. David Cameron, when in opposition was given transcripts of Gordon Browns private telephone converations. Anybody want to engage the Brown bottle with this? 7/7 was coordinated through the use of hacked phones and computers. Did Osama Bin Laden really engage with that?

  • Ian Walker

    I was enjoying the sentiment that you cared about the freedom of speech of the common man, until you revealed your hand that it was yet another Fleet Street whinge about Leveson.

    • First L

      Well the two subjects are evidently tied. Leveson has managed to turn an inquiry that was supposed to investigate criminal wrongdoing by journalists illegally tapping private phones, into an inquiry that threatens to shut down freedom of speech in this country and turn all of us into criminals for speaking the truth. These are not things that were pertinent to the original remit of the inquiry and the government should ignore any recommendations that do not follow the original remit.

  • Thinkpol

    We are watching you. All of you.

  • Warren Valentine

    More of a delicate balancing act than the poorly proof-read article would lead you to believe. People must take an ownership of what they say on twitter/facebook/the internet more generally.

    The real debate ought to be over whether something said in public on the street is the same as saying something in public on the internet. E.g. inciting violence if I was shouting on the corner of the street would be – quite rightly – an arrestable offence. Is it qualitatively different if I do so on the internet? Or is that a sacred place where I can launch invectives at will and say what I please to whomever? Or is it convenient to allow it to be so, to consider the internet as an unimportant sandbox of human thought which is not to be taken seriously rather than accept the truth: that people in this country are a bit gobby, thick, struggle to spell and use proper grammar but we do our best to hide it when we’re out and about (the clever ones try to hide it anyway).

    • FrenchNews

      This might help. The law according to a leftwing lawyer: “When you are speaking to someone face to
      face you are free to say something grossly offensive to
      them, or even to shout it out so that anyone within earshot
      can hear. It’s not a crime. Section 5 of the Public Order
      Act 1986 states that it doesn’t matter whether you let loose
      your volley of invective in front of someone who is likely
      to be insulted by it, or even offended by it, provided they
      are not likely to have been caused harassment, alarm or

      • Colonel Mustard

        How to measure “alarm” or “distress”? It is subjective. If I say I’m distressed then I am which is why the law is nonsense. There is no actual harm that can be proved. If I’m a member of the society for liberating flying insects then I think a statement that wasp nests should be destroyed immediately is grossly offensive. I report it to the police who are duty bound to arrest the perpetrator, photograph them, fingerprint them, take their DNA, have them sit in a police cell for 8-12 hours while they think about it and then release them on bail and refer the case to the true Masters of the Universe the CPS. This is very effective for agenda junkies on a crusade who want to shut down debate they don’t like. Not least because it is just as difficult to prove that the “distress” is phony and the complaint malicious. The whole thing creates a “chilling” factor which over time causes more people to become reticent about what they can say, write and report.

        But of course that is just silly. This law is only intended for serious matters and of course we can always trust those making complaints under it and those responsible for enforcing and prosecuting it.

        • Colonel Mustard

          And all too often it seems that “alarm” and “distress” become interchangeable with “don’t like” and “disagree”.

        • FrenchNews

          Agree and the Leveson agenda only makes the chill worse.

  • venkat

    Wow this is really a great post.Thank you for sharing this post.

  • Jim Noordhoek

    Here in America the government spies on ordinary citizens like myself. The constitution is dead and Romney and Obama could not care less. Obama wins the election:

  • Fergus Pickering

    I have no problem about imprisoning people for what they tweet if it is libellous. Libel should be punished by a prison sentence. Of course you have to distinguish between libel and common abuse. If someone says, and someone has, that Balls is Brown’s catamite, that is not libel because it is obviously figurative. But I don’t see why someone should be able to say that, say, Cameron is taking bribes, if they have no proof. A couple of weeks in chokey would be salutary.

    • First L

      Unfortunately things which are libelous are very often true. Say (hypothetically) that I were to call Australia’s leader of the opposition a misogynist, it could very well be true (Australia’s PM called him as much in Parliament) but no doubt if that person were in the UK and aware of such comments, they would sue for libel.

  • In2minds

    What kind of regime builds stupid windfarms?

  • El_Sid

    In this week’s Spectator, Kirsty Walker said her last complaint – before quitting journalism
    So it’s official – writing for the Spectator doesn’t count as journalism?

  • dalai guevara

    Anyone with a genuine interest in this topic must ask himself one thing: the Arab Spring was supposedly aided by Twitter and the like, as the regimes were unable to control the flow of information.

    Now, would this also apply if say a 99%-type organisation was to communicate their agenda in the US or the UK? Or would simple facts end up confusingly obscured to the eyes of Billy Bob Joe Bob Bloggs?

    • bloughmee

      I feel stupider for having read that comment. You’ve mined virgin ores of stupidity. It’s the mother lode. Well done.

      • dalai guevara

        Stupider? Superb stuff mate, you have made my evening…

  • Thomas Paine

    The absurdity of jailing people for tweeting and yet suspending sentences for violent criminals, burglary and theft is an affront to justice in this country. Leveson is about to make this ten times worse, throwing free speech on a bonfire heaped high by vapid celebrities. Someone has to have the bravery to call a halt to this. Cameron? Alas, not.

    • Daniel Maris

      Yes, that rather puts it in context. Community service for people who kill others with dogs and cars. Two months prison for some coarse comments.

  • Mirtha Tidville

    Ah but you know what too many Twitters make dont you>?????

  • EndOfTrolls

    We do not expect freedom of expression in arab countries and have no right to tell them how to manage their governance given our surrender of democracy to the rulers in Brussels. However, the MSM bears a large portion of the responsibility for the loss of our freedoms by their kowtowing to Blair, Brown and Campbell while they were playing fast and loose with our constitution.

  • HooksLaw

    Why is using facebook and twitter any different from plastering notices on lamposts and painting 5 pointed stars on doors?
    Abuse and inciting is just the same.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Abuse and inciting are actually not the same. You regularly indulge in the former here but have not yet incited the death penalty for UKIP supporters.

      • HooksLaw

        Dear mustard – abusing people and inciting others to act by posting notices on lamp posts and painting 5 pointed stars on their doors is the same as making racist comments on twitter. So why should twitter be allowed because it uses pixels? By all means be allowed to say ‘you are ugly’ but the example used by the author was bizarre.

        I suggest its this blog which is being abused by the endless misrepresentations of UKIP nut jobs. And lets face it we have seen ample evidence even today about how nutty these jobs are.

        • Colonel Mustard

          “abusing people and inciting others to act by posting notices on lamp posts and painting 5 pointed stars on their doors is the same as making racist comments on twitter.”

          You really don’t know the difference in meaning of abuse, incitement and making comments do you? And then you follow up this remarkable conflation by abusing people who happen to support a different (and legitimate) political party than you.

          We shouldn’t be surprised at the piss-poor drafting, enactment and enforcement of law with people like you around. From your pseudonym you might even be one of the idiots responsible.

        • Ian Walker

          Even if they are the same, neither should be against the law. Free speech isn’t a nice thing, in fact unless it makes you deeply uncomfortable a lot of the time, it’s not doing its job.

    • Fraser Nelson

      the difference is that no one has to see what you Tweet if they don’t follow you. It can’t be used to taunt.

      • HooksLaw

        Are you actually serious with that remark? Do my eyes deceive me?

        So putting a 5 pointed star on a blind jews door won’t matter beause he can’t see it? Abusing someone behind their back to anyone else who knows them is all right? Making a monkey chant behind a black man’s back is all right because he can’t see

        I have heard it all now, you are bringing the theories of quantum mechanics into the realm of human relations.

        Your comments are disgraceful and disreputable.

        • Vila_Restal

          Your comments reveal the kind of mentality that saw freethinkers burnt at the stake and Galileo see out his days under house arrest . When you take away the right of free speech and criminalize dissent against the establishment’s imposed belief system du jour you lose true liberty and all hope of natural progress.I am heartily tired of this Totalitarian PC-Nazism. .You are effectively advocating jailing people for no more than insulting people and challenging your preferred version of morality. Shame on you and shame on Britain for standing by while tweeters go to jail.

          • HooksLaw

            Who is talking about the right to take away the right to free speech? What I am saying is that the law should be the same for illegal activities whether you use ink or pixels. To be honest I would have thought that was obvious and to demonstrate my right to free speech, I think you’re an idiot.

          • eeore

            The highlighted instances refer to the individual not the state.

      • eeore

        But an employer might google your name, or the police, or the various databases collecting information on private citizens.

        Then there are cases like Barry Ardolf.

    • Daniel Maris

      Why is sitting in the public bar of a public house and spouting off any different from plastering notices on lamposts? Er – because there is a difference.

      For one thing you have to sign on to Twitter to read a Twitter message, as far as I understand it. You can’t avoid seeing what’s on a lampost if that lampost is on the public highway.

      • HooksLaw

        There is no difference in making racially abusive remarks about someone in a pub to doing the same on twitter.

    • dalai guevara

      good point – the answer is: those with the biggest guns win.

    • bloughmee

      If you plaster notices on lamposts and paint 5 pointed stars on somebody’s door, then you’re destroying property. You can have all the free speech you want, but you can’t destroy others’ property exercising it.

    • MerckZ

      Once upon a time, there was this rather bright fellow named John Stuart Mill. He wrote a lot of rather sensible things. May I recommend reading them?

  • eeore

    So should people be able to post child porn on twitter?

    • David B

      That’s silly! Free speech should hurt no one, it should cause no physical harm and it should no be abusive or insight violence. It does not mean people have the right to be offended by an opinion they do not like

      • eeore

        The article suggests it is daft to arrest people for inciting riots, therefore it seems logical to take that argument to it’s extreme.

        I’m not sure I understand your second point. It is surely the right of anyone in a free society to be offended. Unless you are advocating a North Korean model of re education for those expressing invalid emotion.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Yes, plenty of that inverted “logic” around. Thanks for the demonstration. The Labour party bases most of its dog whistle politics on the “logic” of taking arguments to their extreme. Your comments here offend me and I think you should be jailed for them. Ok?

          • eeore

            Thus says the voice of moral nihilism.

        • David B

          I think the article was trying to draw comparison with how our politicians encourage the Arab Spring while passing laws to jail people in this country for having an opinion.

          Wit regard to be offended, yes you can be offended by my views, but that does not give you the right to stop me expressing them. I do find having to explain that worrying.

          • eeore

            I suggest you are rewriting history, all politicians did, and still do, with regard to Bahrain was to urge restrain.

            The problem with your attitude with regard to free expression, beside it being moronically simply, is that you assume opinions are harmless, and have the same weight. Admiring someones curtains is of a different magnitude to saying that the world would be a better place if they had been aborted.

            • Colonel Mustard

              Opinions are harmful eh? Only when they are expressed or when they are thought about too? Difficult to police and control the latter, eh? But still, they are making a good try at it in modern Britain, aided by people like you.

              • eeore

                I suggest you remove the tin hat and stop making straw men that fuel your paranoia.

                • Colonel Mustard

                  And I suggest you open your eyes and don’t be so naive. The paranoia is real and has been deliberately created.

                • eeore

                  Indeed it has, and you have stepped blindly in.

          • HooksLaw

            The example given was racially abusing a footballer and inciting a riot – and saying, ‘oh thats OK its only on line’


            I suggest that we support the so called arab spring because its progress. Not perfect and slow but progress. So if thats the logic of the article its even worse than I thought.

        • HooksLaw

          The article suggests it is daft to arrest people for inciting riots and daft to arrest people for being racist.

          What ever you do, its what you do – the method is irrelevant. if what you do is illegal then you take the consequences.
          In this country it does not matter what you say about the Queen, on line, in the press, on TV or in the pub. No one is going to bother.

          Of course if we only had dealings with countries on the basis of our own concepts then we would be very much on our own.

          Russia jails people if they do not like the lyrics of your pop songs. Its a disgrace but its their country

          • eeore

            Indeed, and in the article it paints the 1st Amendment as a paragon, but there are plenty of stories of people being arrested for criticising public figures – and even complaining about products they have bought.

            What is overlooked is that any regulation proposed as a result of the Leveson inquiry comes about because of criminal practices within the MSM. The ‘new media’ is being dragged in partly as a smokescreen by corporate interests.

            For those interested in free speech the matter is who is allowed to say what and by whom.

      • Marcus

        Eh? It should not be abusive? Yes it should.
        Unless there is a direct and clear instruction to cause violence then all speech should be free. I.e. “Lets meet up in 10 mins and all attack x”.
        I don’t know what the hell is happening in this you country, it is very worrying. My gut feeling is that it is partly due to lawyers and their desire to expand their revenue. There are now social media lawyers who make their living through this. Which means the worse it gets the more money they make and the more resistance there will be to reversing the tide. Nothing stays the same, it only gets better or worse and this is defiantly getting worse.

        • David B

          There is no need to be abusive – synicism, scarcasam and generally pointing out the stupidity is far more efficitive.

  • David B

    I am afraid in this country we now have the liberally illeberal. There aim is to stop people speaking there mind and only allowing airtime to the liberal agenda. It lead the last PM to call a woman a bigot for expressing a view he did not like, but many people in the country are concerned about. It leads politicians to critise comedians for raising concern on mental health in the only way they know how, but not in they way the politician likes

    We are in danger of have the freedom to say what we are good to say. Discussing issues openly is vital to democracy. People are not bigoted because they disagre with a pressure groups pet cause, they have a different point of view

  • Patriccia Shaw

    The British Establishment are in cahoots with these repressive regimes all
    Blair who is supposed to be neutral is letting his boys play fast and loose with human rights in Bahrain
    Bahraini government and opposition figures are being trained in negotiation and conflict resolution techniques by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell, the Guardian can reveal.

    Powell, who played a key role in securing the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, was asked to undertake the work when Bahrain approached the UK Foreign Office for help with implementing the recommendations of an independent report on the Gulf state’s unrest last year.

    Since leaving government in 2007 Powell has run InterMediate, a small NGO working on conflicts across the world. According to sources in Manama, Powell’s team has organised a series of discreet meetings in London and Northern Ireland for Bahraini officials and opposition figures, applying the lessons of the province’s sectarian divide in a Middle Eastern context.

    A spokesman for InterMediate said that for reasons of confidentiality it does not comment on any of its projects, and refused to confirm or deny that it was involved in Bahrain. He stressed that as a matter of principle the charity does not accept funding from the government of any country in which it works.

    Bahrain is known for employing expensive western PR agencies to present its case. It also buys security expertise. Last year it secured the services of John Yates, the former Metropolitan police commisioner, who is an adviser to the interior ministry. Another adviser is John Timoney, a former Miami police chief.

  • Ivan

    I’m not too worried. Hopefully we’ll be able to hear all the gossip on ‘Radio Free Europe’.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Pretty awful indictment but unfortunately the mob focus on what was written rather than the principle – perhaps as intended. This nonsense all started with New Labour 1997-2010 and both Cameron and Clegg should hang their heads in shame that they have not tackled it. I’m surprised the current DPP wasn’t immediately purged in 2010 but God help us all if he is still around when Yvette Cooper becomes Home Secretary. The prisons will be heaving with political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and dissidents. Shameful for every single one of our politicians supposed to cherish and protect these freedoms.

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