PFF | Rarotonga | Cook Islands - Charges of terrorism laid and dropped against a journalist in Vanuatu over a Facebook comment need independent investigation, states the Pacific Freedom Forum.

“A Facebook comment alone cannot possibly constitute terrorism,” says PFF Chair Titi Gabi.

“Governments of the day must not use terrorism laws against freedoms of expression, no matter how robust, rude, or just plain wrong.”

“At the same time, media must ensure they use freedoms responsibly and try to avoid comments that could be misconstrued”, says Gabi.

Vanuatu Independent sub-editor Gratien Mulsoul was arrested this week by police after lawyers for the prime minister wrote police a letter complaining he had threatened cabinet by wishing their plane would crash into the sea.

Despite no official complaint being laid, senior police arrested Mulsoul under terrorism and sedition laws.

However, after 30 hours in jail, Mulsoul, also known under his other surname Tiano, was released when the Public Prosecutor at the State Prosecutions Department ordered charges be dropped.

PFF welcomes news of the decision by the Public Prosecutor, currently in counterpart training with an Australian policing consultant.

PFF co-Chair Monica Miller says controversy over the Facebook comment reflects broader concerns across the region about the role of social networks.

“It is immensely encouraging for PFF to see dozens of comments in the Vanuatu Facebook group thrashing out issues surrounding this arrest and what it means for the still emerging practice of using social networks.”

“Meantime, Vanuatu police must ensure that any arrest is well-founded or risk making a false arrest,” says Miller.

“In the absence of anything other than a Facebook comment, the laying of terrorism and sedition charges must themselves come under scrutiny.”

PFF accepts there are public safety concerns to free-running debates that get out of hand online, and calls for clarity and caution from all news media participating on social networks, like Facebook.

Mulsoul wrote the comment in the biggest Facebook group for Vanuatu, Yumi Toktok Stret – Straight Talk with more than 10,000 members – allegedly praying for a plane to crash. Passengers on the plane consisted of ministers returning from a cabinet meeting held outside the capital, Port Vila.

Vanuatu Independent editor Tony Wilson told Radio Australia the Facebook comment was one among jokes that popped out of a serious debate, questioning the threat to national security of having an entire cabinet on a single aeroplane.

Commentators on YTS said the “crash” comment was nothing more a common joke used as a punch-satirical line in all sorts of debates.

Miller welcomed news from PFF members about the setting up of a Media Complaints Council in Vanuatu.

“Along with plans for a Pacific Media Ombudsman, this would help the Vanuatu government in handling media complaints instead of resorting to the arrest of journalists which risks leaving the Vanuatu government in a bad light.”

PFF calls for independent review of the process by which Vanuatu police make an arrest when dealing with freedoms of expression.