20 Are Convicted for Sexist and Racist Abuse of Dutch Politician
THE HAGUE — A Dutch court on Thursday convicted 20 people of sexist and racist online hate speech directed against a black politician and media personality, in a case that many here saw as an indictment of the ostensible culture of tolerance in the Netherlands.
Twenty-two people were charged with harassing the politician, Sylvana Simons, though she said in a complaint that she had received abusive comments from 40,000 internet users. One defendant, who received 80 hours of community service, the day’s harshest sentence, was accused of digitally adding Ms. Simons’s face to a video of Ku Klux Klan members lynching people.
Of the 22 defendants, one was acquitted on Thursday when the court ruled that he had not targeted Ms. Simons directly. Another case was dropped against a 15-year-old minor.
The court said it had focused on prosecuting those who had made the worst comments and whose identities could be ascertained.
“Freedom of opinion is great, especially if it fits into a social debate,” the court said in a statement. “But when this opinion is an insult, threat, riot or discrimination, there is a criminal offense.”
The court added that it hoped the sentences would have a “deterring effect.”
Ms. Simons, 46, was born in Suriname and raised in the Netherlands, where she gained prominence as a television and radio presenter. In testimony, she said she had become a target online after announcing her candidacy for the pro-immigrant party Denk. Ms. Simons later founded her own party, with which she unsuccessfully ran for Parliament in the March election.
Ms. Simons said she had also been targeted after attending a demonstration against Black Pete, a contentious Dutch Christmas tradition in which Saint Nicholas is attended by a black servant, and which involves children wearing blackface.
Speaking to reporters after the sentencing, Ms. Simons celebrated the outcome.
“To me, this statement marks the end of an intense period, but I hope that this is the beginning of a social debate,” Ms. Simons said outside the courtroom. “I think it’s important that we now have a legal framework.”
Of the 20 convicted defendants, four were given sentences of community service and 16 were fined 150 to 450 euros, or roughly $165 to $500.
One defendant said he would appeal the court’s decision, telling De Volkskrant, a daily newspaper, that he did not believe online threats were comparable to real-life threats.
Hate speech on social media is being increasingly discussed in Europe, where experts say it has become a problem. Last month, Germany approved a bill that would hold social media platforms responsible for hosting hate speech or defamatory fake news.
“This is the first time that something like this went to court, so it handled it very cautiously,” said Hilbrand Westra, a spokeswoman for InterSectionGroup, a think tank that deals with racism, migration and integration in the Netherlands.
The outcome of the trial did not seem to have the deterrent effect the court had hoped. Just after sentences were announced, a phone could be heard playing “Oh Susannah” outside the courtroom. The song served as the soundtrack to the doctored video of the lynching that was part of the trial.