PARIS – A landmark cyberbullying trial in Paris, involving thousands of threats against a teenager who trashed Islam in online posts, paves the way for efforts to punish and prevent online abuse.
It also raised uncomfortable questions about freedom of speech, the freedom to criticize a religion and respect for millions of Muslims in France. More importantly, it’s been a lawsuit over the power of the word online, and prosecutors hope it serves as a wake-up call to those who treat it lightly.
Thirteen young people of various origins and religions from across France face jail time on charges of online harassment, online death threats and online rape threats during the two-day trial that took place. finished Tuesday. It is the first of its kind since France created a new court in January to prosecute online crimes, including harassment and discrimination.
Tweet or post without thinking
One of the defendants wants to become a police officer. Another said he just wanted to rack up more followers by making people laugh. Some denied the wrongdoing, others apologized. Most said they tweeted or posted without thinking.
The teenager at the center of the trial, who has only been publicly identified by her first name, Mila, told the court she felt “sentenced to death”.
âI don’t see my future,â she said.
Mila, who describes herself as an atheist, was 16 when she started posting videos on Instagram and later on TikTok harshly criticizing Islam and the Quran. Now 18, she said “I don’t like any religion, not just Islam”.
Her lawyer Richard Malka said Mila received some 100,000 threat messages, including death threats, rape threats, misogynistic messages and hate messages about her homosexuality.
Leaving high school twice
Mila had to quit her high school, then another. She is now monitored daily by the police for her safety.
âIt was a cataclysm, it feels like the sky is falling on our headsâ¦ a confrontation with pure hatred,â her mother said in court.
Mila’s online enemies don’t fit a single profile. Among the thousands of threats, authorities found 13 suspects on trial this week. All are identified publicly only by their first name, according to French practice.
The lawsuit focused on comments in response to a TikTok video by Mila in November criticizing Islam. An accused named Manfred threatened to turn her into another Samuel Paty, a teacher who was beheaded outside Paris in October after showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class.
Manfred told the court he “was pretending to be a stalker to make people laugh.”
“I knew she was controversial because she was critical of Islam. I wanted to have fun and get new subscribers,” he said.
Defendant Enzo, 22, apologized in court for tweeting “you deserve to be slaughtered” followed by a sexist epithet.
Others argued that their messages did not constitute a crime.
“At the time, I didn’t know it was harassment. When I posted the tweet, I didn’t think so,” said Lauren, a 21-year-old college student who tweeted about Mila: ” Crush his skull, please. “
Stands for criticism
Alyssa, 20, one of the few Muslim defendants, says she reacted “like everyone else on Twitter” and maintained her criticism of Mila’s publications.
While the defense attorney argued that it is not the same to insult a god or a religion and a human being, Alyssa disagreed.
âTo me it’s the same nature. Mila used freedom of speech; I thought (tweeting an angry response) was also freedom of speech,â she said.
Freedom of expression is considered a fundamental right and blasphemy is not a crime in France. After Mila’s first video in January 2020, a complaint was filed against her for inciting racial hatred. This investigation was abandoned for lack of evidence.
Some French Muslims believe that their country and the government of President Emmanuel Macron unfairly stigmatize their religious practices.
French society divided
Mila’s online videos rekindled those concerns and divided French society. While threats against her have been widely condemned, former Socialist President Francois Hollande was among those who argued that while she has the right to criticize religion, “she should not engage in a speech of hatred against those who practice their religion “.
Nawfel, 19, didn’t see the harm when he tweeted that Mila deserved the death penalty and insulted her sexuality. He passed tests to become a gendarme and hopes not to be convicted, to keep a clean criminal record. The lawsuit gave him a new perspective on online business.
âWithout social media, everyone would have a normal life,â he said. “Now there are a lot of people who will think before they write.”
Jail time, fines
Defendants face up to two years in prison and a 30,000 euro fine (approximately $ 37,000) if convicted of online harassment. Some are also charged with online death threats, an offense punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 45,000 euros ($ 55,000).
The prosecutor, however, requested suspended sentences. The verdict is expected on July 9.
“You have the power to stop this digital lynching,” defense lawyer Malka told the judges. “The fear of the law is the only thing left.”
Mila remains active on social networks.
âI have this need to show that I will not change who I am and what I think,â she said. “I see him as a woman who was raped in the street and who is asked not to go out, so that it does not happen again.”