A pathetic lack of empathy

The time is nigh when our legislators are required to take a hard look at Bermuda’s use of social media, in particular where it pertains to horrific life-and-death situations being repurposed for an apathetically cruel sense of self-importance.

In a community this size, it is unconscionable the ease with which sensitive material is freely circulated among the masses without seemingly a moment’s thought.

What the likes of Facebook and Twitter have facilitated is for our vile and vulgar inner selves, which might normally linger a distance below the surface, to manifest in ways that expose us as being seriously devoid of a moral code.

Uncaring. Unfeeling. Lacking in empathy. Depraved.

Police commissioner Stephen Corbishley is on a crusade to take back the streets after the recent murders of Paul Johnson and Ronniko Burchall, and well he should be.

But what should not be overlooked, what should no longer be restricted to vain pleas that go in one ear and out the other is the insistence that citizens refrain from prematurely reporting death, circulating gruesome images and communicating them in voice notes that can be spread from one end of the island to the other in a matter of minutes — not to mention overseas.

It was thought that after images of the prone bodies of murder victim Prince Edness and accident victim Richard Thomas were mass-circulated to much public outcry in late 2014 and early 2015, followed by the death of lawyer-politician Shawn Crockwell in June 2017 being communicated inappropriately to family members via social media, that Bermuda had grown up and seen the error of its ways.

But, no, it appears we have not — and now is the time for enforcement of a changing of ways through legislation that gives the Department of Public Prosecutions teeth to strike a blow for morality and civility.

The community of St David’s has endured a difficult few weeks, first with the death of Selena Minors before Christmas and then the execution-style murder of Ronniko Burchall on the grounds of St David’s County Cricket Club, the community gathering place.

For decades Ms Minors served the East End, and all those who passed through, with distinction by way of her fast-food outlet Selena’s.

She, her family and loved ones deserved better than for someone to happen upon the scene of her passing and then give chapter and verse about it and the personal life of the victim in a WhatsApp voice note that was passed around like a dinner-table accompaniment.

Delivered in a tone of faux sympathy, this note even made it to the inbox of a member of the Crockwell family.

Unintended consequences, maybe, but that cannot be a defence for causing untold emotional and psychological stress — all for the purpose of seeming to appear in the know.

We live in an age where everyone thinks they are a journalist, but hardly anyone is prepared to follow the code that journalists who are properly vetted live by: generally, unless there are extenuating circumstances, it is unacceptable to photograph or film or record individuals in a private place without their consent, unless it is justified in the public interest.

Nothing about the deaths of Prince Edness, Robert Thomas, Shawn Crockwell and Selena Minors could be said to be in the public interest for identification purposes before their families were informed in as dignified a manner as is possible.

Common law protects individuals from publicity that discloses information about their private lives. Unlike libel, slander and defamation actions, abusers can be liable in a court of law for publishing information in a manner that is highly objectionable to a reasonable person and if the information is of no legitimate concern to the public.

Even if it is true.

Disclosure of private sexual relations, disgraceful family quarrels, humiliating illnesses, and most other intimate personal matters will normally give rise to liability for invasion of privacy.

By discouraging the publication of such private and personal matters, common law places a high value on the right of individuals to control the dissemination of information about themselves, including the right to filter out embarrassing and harmful facts that might influence the opinion of others.

A freedom of expression defence for abusers of this privilege would fall flat on its face.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that freedom of expression comes with duties and responsibilities, and “may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.

It is added in Article 17 that “nothing in this Convention may be interpreted as implying for any state, group or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the Convention”.

With that in mind, the voice note initiated by someone who called herself “Ceola”, a disclosure that set off a firestorm of its own by erroneously aligning veteran journalist Ceola Wilson with this misdeed, triggers many red flags.

This “Ceola”, who also implied that she would have taken and circulated photographs were police on the scene not in such close attendance so as to catch her in the act, should be a person of interest to the authorities.

One to be made an example of.

Legislation or no legislation.

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Published Jan 7, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Jan 7, 2019 at 7:58 am)

A pathetic lack of empathy

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