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The pursuit of justice and social media.

You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Deut. 16:19-20)

The world in 2011 is still split between the haves and the have-nots, the rich versus the less rich and the poor. Despite a global recession, many have profited – while millions look for work and struggle daily to survive. There has been reason for optimism in the last year – at the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from unjust detention by the Burmese generals. However, this is the exception – and when it comes to justice it is difficult to be optimistic for many countries.

I think that it is worthwhile looking at a few news stories of the last month of 2010 and what they say about different views on justice, the rights of the individual, and also the potential impact of social media on calls for justice.

The first news story concerns the President of Iran’s bete-noire, Israel. Moshe Katsav was born in Iran, and moved to Israel in 1951, aged 5, as a refugee. He spent the next 4 years of his life, living in tents and a transit camp which eventually was built up to become the Israeli town of Kriyat Malakhi. At the age of 24, he was elected mayor of this town – the start of a life in the political limelight. He was elected to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) in 1977 and served as Minister of Housing & Construction; Labour & Welfare; Transportation; Tourism; and was Deputy Prime Minister between 1996-1999. In 2000 he stood for, and was elected President. In 2006 however, he was accused of sexual molestation and rape, and forced to resign in 2007. He was subsequently indicted and tried for rape. On 30 December 2010, Katsav was found guilty by a three judge panel and will shortly be sentenced, He can expect a mandatory jail term.

Although this is a highly unflattering story it is important as it shows how justice should work. It doesn’t matter how influential or senior somebody is, he or she should not be above the law. If they commit crimes then they should be tried and sentenced. The fact that a former President was accused, tried and found guilty shows that in Israel, nobody is above the law. Katsav is not alone – there are other public figures within Israel who have been or are being investigated for various crimes, and this is how it should be. As the Bible says “You shall not pervert judgement…” and have two levels of justice – one for those in positions of authority or with ability to pay, and one for everybody else.

In contrast, a recent news story from Bangkok shows how power and privilege can corrupt calls for justice as well as the potential influence of social media to ensure that justice does take place.

A few days before the Katsav judgement – 27 December 2010 – a road accident took place resulting in the deaths of 9 people (although the first news stories reported only 8). Initial media reports blamed a van driver for the deaths, but subsequently a different story emerged that was suppressed by Thai news outlets. This was rapidly circulated via a Facebook site calling for justice. Within 24 hours, the page had generated over 180,000 likes.  Currently over 270,000 people have said that they like the page, and there are numerous comments.

Driver on Blackberry after road accidentThe story that was suppressed, apparently backed up by CCTV and witness accounts, told of an impetuous 16-year old girl without a driving licence who got impatient with a slow moving van and tried to push it out of the way with her Honda Civic. The van crashed, resulting in the loss of life of a number of students at Thammasat University – one of the best in Thailand – plus an assistant to the dean at the university’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning, and researchers including a promising scientist from a very poor family who had won a national scholarship. The girl that caused the accident, in contrast, came from a well known family. Her father had been a general and her great great grandfather was King Rama V (1853 – 1910) – the king whose policies ensured that Thailand stayed independent (and not colonised like neighbouring countries) and who is viewed as having put the country on the road to modernization. Following the accident, the girl was photographed calmly using her Blackberry – apparently posting to a social networking site (although subsequently claiming to be calling her father).

Although some of the latest reports suggest that the girl will be prosecuted, the fact that she is described as a “minor” may give a get-out clause. (“ persons of that age were not entitled to a driver’s licence, nor could they be fully subject to criminal and civil liability for deaths and damage.“)

Although the comments from Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, that “nobody is above the law” suggest that Thailand, like Israel, will treat miscreants equally, that does not seem to be the belief of those who set up the Facebook page, especially taking account the initial reports blaming the van driver.

In 1991, Alvin Toffler published PowerShift (US). The book is a “study of power in the 1990s and beyond” and traced “the shifting global power structures and describes how the very definition of power has changed in modern times”. PowerShift was written before the Internet had become mainstream, and well before today’s social media tools. The book suggested that the balance of power was changing from the traditional sources to those who controlled information. Although such ideas have circulated for some years, social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – are allowing for injustices to be quickly publicised, and as such, it becomes easier to call for justice. They are an example of the democratisation of information and allow for genuine expressions of “people power”, the “power of the crowd” as well as the “power of the many over the few”. Such calls are challenges to the existing elites of the world – who are likely to do what they can to suppress them. One approach is that taken by China, who, as the year 2010 closed,  was reported to have  banned sites like Skype, Facebook and Twitter. Other ways are to attack challengers to the existing order and some rumours suggest that the Thai Facebook page supporters may even be punished.

Nevertheless, I believe that a genie has been let out of a bottle. Although most of the time, social media is used to communicate with friends and colleagues, it has a power of its own – to change the world. With over 500 million people connected to Facebook – around 10% of all people in the world – it becomes very difficult to suppress injustices and much easier to spread the concepts of freedom, justice and the truth – however much dictatorial and corrupt regimes may try and stop it. However with power comes responsibility. The responsibility is to ensure that what is spread is the truth. There is a real danger that such tools can also be used to spread false propaganda, lies and untruths – allowing for injustice to spread. There is the danger of mob-rule, where a suspect is condemned, without being given a chance to defend themselves – the 21st century equivalent of a lynch mob.

Social media can help ensure that privileged people don’t escape justice. In this, it will serve a positive purpose. It can also act to reinforce prejudice, irrational hatred and bigotry – as can be seen in groups that try to delegitimise and condemn Israel, despite ample evidence to the contrary, as in the example of Katsav’s trial.

You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.(Exodus, 23:2)

Note: After I wrote this Blog post, I came across a link to a fascinating article by the Internet Guru, Clay Shirky, on the Political Power of Social Media – where he discusses issues relating to the power of social media to change governments, etc. He also considers the potential for change, and also the potential for achieving nothing positive. (Article is free but registration required. The article was summarised in the Economist – with comments. Evidently it was written prior to the Wikileaks affair – as some of the comments put the USA in the “control” corner rather than the “freedom” corner!)

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  1. Vipawee D.
    January 3, 2011 at 1:49 am

    In Thailand, people said ‘Jail and law are for poor and fool people”. We will fight for justice. No one is above the law.
    Thank you.

    • January 3, 2011 at 2:01 pm

      In lots of countries they say things like that. Even where they don’t say it, it is often the case. The execution of Teresa Lewis in Virginia in the USA was a typical example of this. She was poor, and low intelligence (IQ of 72) and was easily fooled. The actual murderers got jail. She got death – as she couldn’t defend herself. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/24/teresa-lewis-executed-virginia

      That is why the Bible makes it so clear that perversion of justice through having wealth or position of authority is evil. It doesn’t just corrupt the person. It corrupts the whole country and ultimately leads to those perverting justice to lose their position (or their children or grandchildren). Such behaviour also leads to people rebelling and so societies that protect such evils become dictatorial until they are overthrown.

      There are very few (I think only 3 other) instances in the bible where it actually states a reward for the future as with the statement I mentioned in the beginning of my article. All deal with ethical behaviour – to parents, animals and being honest. (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 22:6-7; Deuteronomy 25:13-16).

      The significant thing about them is that they promise long life, health and security – in the sense that you will not have to keep moving as refugees but will be able to pass on inheritance.

      I believe that these all tell the truth. Whatever your faith, bad behaviour will come back to punish you and/or your descendants. Whether it is via failing to enter heaven, or being reborn as a cockroach, punishment will come if there isn’t repentance on this earth. Even on this earth, punishment eventually comes to wicked people – as they are hated, and so unlikely to pass on their success to future generations. Bad karma follows bad karma!

  2. January 9, 2011 at 3:36 am

    Thanks for this post. I 100 % agree with what you are saying. I have been talking about this subject a lot lately with my father so might this will get him to see my point of view. Fingers crossed!

  3. January 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who definitively knows what they’re talking about on the internet. You accurately know how to bring an issue to light and make it a requirement. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

  4. January 22, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Very well written regardless of the complexity of the subject, you should write more often. Your writting manner is pleasing and the way you managed the subject with grace is commendable.

  5. January 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm

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  6. February 11, 2011 at 8:28 am

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  7. February 23, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    There are some interesting cut-off dates on this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There may be some validity but I’ll take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish extra! Added to FeedBurner as well

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