Moldova Internet spat sparks free speech debate

Dec 8, 2011
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The blogging world in Moldova erupted last week over the question of free speech vs. hate speech and how much online news sites should be required to moderate what users can and can’t post to live chats and news comment sections.  In a country where social media and online communication has exploded over the past few years, a recent court case is showing just how far the virtual world has outstripped the legal boundaries of the real world.

The debate has also raised interesting questions about the future of the Internet in the country and what role Moldovan netizens see it playing in their image of a modern European democracy.

The storm came to a head on 24 November, the day after a Moldovan court handed down a judgment against the online news site Privesc.eu for permitting hate speech during a live chat towards one of its users.  The suit was brought by the well-known journalist and activist Oleg Brega, who was on the site when the moderator and several users started to personally attack him and to make offensive comments about Moldova’s LGBT community.

The site Privesc.eu, which literally means “I watch” in Romanian, hosts live streaming of news events around Moldova.  The site also provides a chat widget featured next to videos where users can post anonymously.  The site rules for the chat include: “personal attacks; hate of any form towards chat users; use of obscene, abusive or indecent language; or offensive or inappropriate behavior” are forbidden.

A debate, ignited

On 9 February, Brega was on the site participating in the chat during a live broadcast of a press conference by the LGBT-rights organization, GenderDoc-M. During the conference, the online debate escalated and several of the commentators, including the chat moderator, repeatedly attacked Brega.  The site-designated moderator of the chat, Corneliu Gandrabur under the user name “Csiting”, asked Brega (“O.Brega”) several times if he himself is gay. At one point he said, “I want a list of all gays and lezzies in MD, and photo if possible. That way we can know who they are so we can violate their rights,” and later added, “Society pays me to get rid of gays”.

In a post on his blog, Gandrabur gave his account of the discussion.  Since the incident, his blog (csiting.blogspot.com) has been deactivated, and almost any trace of it (including the original post about the incident) has been completely deleted from the Internet.

Brega sued the website in March seeking a public apology from the site for “inciting and tolerating hate speech directed at persons of nontraditional sexual orientation” and for “discrimination through association” as well as payment of damages, according to his blog.

In response to Brega’s lawsuit, Vitalie Esanu, the founder of Privesc.eu, accused Brega on his own blog of filing the suit for PR or for financial gain and for refusing to point out the exact comments that he took offense with.  In addition he said, “Technically it is impossible to moderate the comments live on the site. A moderator cannot make a decision on the meaning of a comment. They can delete a comment, but only based on some specific rules such as prohibited words, links or advertising.”  In his blog, Esanu did not mention the actions of the chat moderator, Csiting. However in an email statement, he said:

“Csiting was and is one of the anonymous users whom we have endowed with the right to delete or ban another user (we call them ‘moderators’).  [They] are not hired by and do not have a contract with Privesc.eu. Accordingly Privesc.eu is not responsible for [Csiting’s] ideas and comments from the chat, and if he abuses those rights he can be blocked by another moderator. Privesc.eu is trying to build a community that manages itself.”

In his blog, Esanu also warned whatever the outcome, the court’s decision would set a precedent for the future of online news in Moldova. He worried that any judgment against his site would cause other sites to disable commenting.

And that seemed to be the end of the debate—that is until last week, when the court’s verdict was released. At that point bloggers came out of the woodwork in reaction to the judgment, which required the site to pay Brega 5,200 lei ($440) as well as to issue a public apology.  Privesc.eu said they would appeal the ruling.

A debate rekindled

News of the verdict dominated the Moldovan blogosphere, message boards and Facebook for days, and the debate even made it into the traditional media with news articles and TV talk shows addressing the issue.

Several of the opinions veered toward the extreme. A few attacked Brega’s personal character, others  recommended that he be shipped off to a deserted island, and a couple  of blogs even went so far as to propose that the ruling was part of some conspiracy. The last of those, it should be noted, was written by Gandrabur on his new blog.

Other blogs focused on the case itself. A few argued that the case was too vague and that the court didn’t define the specific of the case. In a live debate hosted by Publika TV, Nicolae Esanu, a former justice minister agreed that the case was not strong enough and said, “In Moldova there is not yet a law that clearly defines who is responsible for information placed on the Internet.”

However not everyone agreed that Privesc.eu was blameless.  Anton Constantinescu, posted on Curaj.net (a site co-founded by Brega) said:  ”In all cases in which either a website or a television station broadcasts something that could spark legal complications, it is common practice to publish a disclaimer. … This case is very clear to me; [privesc.eu] did not publish it. So the site is guilty.”

What kind of speech: free or hate?

The majority of bloggers and commentators in support of Privesc.eu seemed to focus on the idea that freedom of speech was under attack. In the same Publika TV debate, journalist Vlad Turcanu said, “[Mr. Brega] has fallen into a slight contradiction with what he has always promoted in the past until now. … Now he is trying to deprive someone of their right to free speech.”

In response to these criticisms, Brega, along with his lawyer and a representative from GenderDoc-M met with members of the press and said that this case was not attacking free speech, only hate speech, which according to a law passed in 2010, is not considered protected speech.

Interestingly Privesc.eu broadcast the broadcast the press conference but, perhaps unwilling to play host to a flame war, disabled the accompanying chat.

Questions of liability

Others commentators, in support of Privesc.eu, put aside the case of free speech vs. hate speech. Instead, they criticized Brega for going after the website and not the individuals who made the remarks. Dumitru Ciorici, the co-founder of the popular Moldovan news portal unimedia.md, said in the Publika TV debate he was not impressed by Brega’s actions, “he is right in what he did, but not in how he proceeded. He ought to have sued the individual.”

Ciorici added that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the platform for what gets said by users, regardless of whether a site decides to filter content. As an example, he said his site alone had removed more than 2,000 comments for violating their terms of service in a ten-day period. However he conceded that it is important for each site and its administrators to have their own internal rules that they can use to determine what is appropriate for their site.

Privesc.eu ‘s founder Vitalie Esanu, who was also present at the Publika TV debate, said that if Brega had come to him first and asked for specific comments to be removed, the site would have done so.

‘A crusade against black swans’

Several blogs and commentators, regardless of whose side they came down on, lamented the case as overall black mark for their country.

One blogger, Vyacheslav Balacci, worried that Brega’s lawsuit and the resulting media storm in fact made things worse for minorities in Moldova as it has brought a “Crusade against black swans.” He said:

“This week, I witnessed with everyone else the beginning of a real crusade. I do not know if all the participants really identified with who was fighting and why, but I was amazed by the number of ‘soldiers’ who eagerly joined in this fight, even though many of them don’t know anything about what it means to be oppressed.”

But Balacci also expressed support for Brega and what he did, “He did it to give an example of Moldovan society, one with very serious problems in terms of democratic values ​​and tolerance.”

As the case continues on to the Moldovan appellate court and Moldovan bloggers retreat back to their respective corners in anticipation of the next verdict, it is clear that Moldovan IT specialists, lawmakers and civil rights advocates have their work cut out for them.

Not only does the country need to decide what constitutes free speech and hate speech and when one becomes the other, but Moldova also has to decide how much the government will need to get involved to settle future disputes and how much Moldovan Internet users can trust themselves to extend their European democratic ideals online.


About the Author

Joshua Boissevain

Joshua Boissevain is a research associate and editorial assistant at Transitions Online. He's also a freelance journalist and photographer based in Prague. Find him on twitter at @joshboissevain.
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