By Darryl Mason
When volunteer firefighter Brendan Sokaluk was named by Channel 7 news on the weekend as the person arrested as the key suspect in the arson that started the Churchill fires, which killed as many as 21 people in Victoria, an elderly woman was asked for her opinion as she exited a Churchill supermarket. Without hesitation, the old woman said she wanted to cover him in petrol and set him on fire.
Burning the currently unconvicted man to death for what he may have done is the most popular choice for revenge murder amongst thousands of Australians commenting online at blogs, MySpace, YouTube and Facebook.
There hasn't been such a popular public demand for instant death of an accused murderer since the gruesome pack rape and slaughter of Anita Cobby in 1986, when Blacktown locals surrounded the city police station, where the suspects were being held, and waved nooses and screamed for bloody and savage revenge, calls for revenge that were echoed across the country.
Facebook, in particular, has been inundated with thousands joining 'Kill That Sick Fuck Now'-type groups, filled with comments proposing creatively gruesome ways to torture the accused to death :
President of the Australian Council of Civil Liberties, Terry O'Gorman, says the creators of the Facebook groups, some of which have over 2,000 members, could face charges for being in contempt of court and could put a stop to the accused actually going to trial.
"As far as stopping comments about torture and killing and so on, that's a bit more difficult, I think however Facebook has got to bring their good judgement to bear.
"While people have a right to express an opinion about the person who has been charged, it's got to be kept in mind that this person has to have a fair trial.
"If this person who has been arrested for arson is to face trial before a jury, it makes it very difficult to get a jury pool who is not tainted by the results of these Facebook entries."
Mr O'Gorman says just as media outlets can face prosecution for breaching court orders, so too can individuals.
"The law of suppression, when laid down by a court, applies just as much to individuals who use Facebook as it does to major media outlets," he said.
"I think it's high time that those people who are making these entries on Facebook realise that they are not operating in a legal vacuum."
Membership for the online groups continues to grow, as does the anger (hopefully being) vented in the comments on the Facebook groups :
"let the people get him I say".
"Ya know, I would go to jail myself if I could get my hands on this creep, let me hurt him, burn him, put a bullet and knife in every orrifice of his body," wrote one poster.
"tie the bastard to a post and put a ring of fire around him....let the fire make its way to him and make him suffer like the other 100's of people had to indure...."
"yes thank christ his address was given out, just in case the police din't catch him in time, i had a small chance to go and smash the cunt's knee caps in with a metal pipe..."
"what a fucken sicko yeah?""You dirty piece os scumbag shit. how the fuck can you do what you did. your lucky i dont get my hands on you cause i light you on fire then put you out and continue to do it untill you slowly burn to death you low life piece of shit. remember what goes around comes around your fucked..."
"...you fuckn worthless piece of shit… ur a fuckn disgrace to human kind… to any living thing!!!! if i was the magistrate dealing wid ur case i would be giving ur the harshest punishment ever recalled… it wouldnt be putting u in prison it would be putin u in a tidy cell… n one day at a time cut ur limbs the burn them up the put lemon or salt on them n rub it… il make u fuckn suffer like our family and friends did!! u DIRTY, PERVERT FUCKD UP HUMAN BEING……rot in hell u bastard
It shouldn't really come as any surprise that some of those making these kinds of comments are friends or relatives of people who burned to death in the fires Brendan Sokaluk is now accused of lighting.
Obviously there are now serious concerns about whether such an outpouring of public fury and calls for violent revenge will jeopardise the chances of Brendan Sokaluk receiving a fair trial.
While radio commentators, and newspaper opinionists, can't publicly call for the accused to have his fingers cut off, sewn back on and then cut off again (as one Facebook commenter demanded), right now the laws that could stop Facebookers making such threats are mostly untested in the courts and may prove to be extremely difficult to prosecute :
Here's Mathew Rimmer, lecturer in law at the ANU, on why Facebook should not be seen as any different to any other media organisation :
"It's the problem with the internet and particularly internet sites such as Facebook and other chat arrangements, the law really hasn't kept up with internet developments..."
"It's quite clear the major newspaper or radio station can't make those comments.
"Equally people on Facebook can't make them, but the law really hasn't caught up to internet technology to ensure that sort of prohibition can be properly policed."
"Much like a newspaper, Facebook needs to be careful what it publishes because it's not just the author who is liable. Sometimes the publisher is liable ," he said.This could be all the fuel some need to push for all comments to blogs or social networking sites to be regulated, moderated, with any kind of anonymity wiped away forever.
Dr Rimmer said Facebook users needed to think carefully before posting. Individuals who posted comments that breach confidentiality, privacy or defamation laws, or any relevant court orders, could be held liable.
More on all this here
VEX News broke the Online Vigilantes At Facebook story early on Sunday, February 15.
A reader-submitted image from ABC Online shows a view of the Churchill fires Brendan Sokaluk is accused of lighting