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A privilege not a right

Regular visitors to The Royal Gazette's website will notice that the number of stories that readers are able to comment on has been greatly reduced in recent weeks.

There are a number of reasons for this, and in the interest of openness we have decided to give you some insight in to our decision making process when it comes to which stories allow comments, and which don't.

All the reasons are based on the laws which govern the media profession, and are entirely down to protecting you, and us, from legal proceedings that can emanate from slanderous, libellous, and defamatory comments — comments, unfortunately, that we see far too often on The Gazette website.

We have never allowed comments on court stories because ongoing legal proceedings can be prejudiced by such remarks. Commenting when you do not have all the facts, or have facts that are not before the courts, can cause a mistrial, can see justice subverted, and, more often than not, can land us in hot water.

Similarly, we have stopped allowing comments on some potentially controversial stories about public figures because of the high feelings that run on the Island regarding these people. Accusing someone of illegal activity without proof, besmirching their name because of perceived wrongdoings and sickening character attacks are not welcome nor are they warranted.

Unfortunately, a small minority of those leaving comments persist in making unfounded accusations, using less than desirable language, and generally dragging the level of debate into the gutter.

We have decided that rather than pander to this element, we will just remove the comments. The majority will pay for the recklessness of the few, and unfortunate though that is, it is the safest course of action left open to this newspaper.

That minority, though, persist in commenting on stories that are not relevant to the topic under discussion, forcing non-related stories to also have the comments switched off.

Recently we have been accused of stifling free speech. But commenting on a website is not a right, it is a privilege that has to be earned. If comments result in us being sued, as they have done in the recent past, then that privilege has clearly not been earned.

Readers have asked why we don't have a dedicated moderator, checking comments before they are published. This is one option of three that could be used to solve the problem, but, for various reasons it is not the answer.

Being a moderator is a full time job that requires someone with a thorough grounding in media law, and an understanding of where the line is between harsh but fair comment and libel. Given the current economic conditions which we are all operating under, that is just not feasible.

The second option is to switch off all comments, on all stories, for good. Tempting though this may be on occasion, The Gazette has no desire to stifle debate. No media organisation ever wants to arbitrarily restrict free speech. We believe in an open, honest, exchange of views, as long as the arguments are intelligent, well-reasoned and don't contravene our terms of service. So, no swearing, no unfounded accusations, no character assassination, and, absolutely no libel, slander or defamation.

Our third option, which we are seriously considering, is to remove the cloak of anonymity under which readers operate. In order to comment you would be required to register with your real name, one which is verifiable, and backed up with a credit card, and current address.

Bermuda has a long history of allowing anonymous comment, and to step away from that is not something we would do lightly. However, the recent spate of anonymous attacks, many of which are slanderous, cannot be allowed to continue.

It is our belief that if people are required to sign their own names they will be both more thoughtful and more circumspect when it comes to commenting. And those developments would benefit both The Royal Gazette and its readers.

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Published August 14, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated August 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm)

A privilege not a right

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