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Prosecutor drops probe into racial abuse of Somali newsreader

Although the comment on an Instagram post was completely inappropriate, the offence was minor, the prosecutor says.

Ujuni Ahmed.
Human rights activist and Somali-language newsreader Ujuni Ahmed asks what signal is sent when people use racial slurs on social media without any consequences. Image: Victoria Wirén / Yle

Prosecutors have closed a case and will not be pressing charges over online racial abuse aimed at human rights activist and Yle's Somali-language newsreader Ujuni Ahmed.

According to the head of the investigation and the prosecutor, the case was too minor to be investigated further.

Ahmed had commented on a publicly-visible Instagram post by singer Janna Hurmerinta, which had led to a long thread of comments about cultural appropriation. Among other things, Ahmed wrote that harmful patterns of behaviour are often unconscious and should be talked about more in Finland.

In reply to Ahmed’s comment, another Instagram user wrote a reply using the Finnish word "neekeri", a derogatory term equivalent to the n-word in English.

"I have never before had the comment "neekeri" thrown so violently in my face. I thought that this cannot be the way I am spoken to or how I am restricted from speaking out," Ahmed says.

Social significance must be understood

The pre-trial investigation into the comment was dropped at the beginning of February. The decision did not take a position on whether the suspect was guilty of committing a crime.

Ahmed says she wonders about the prosecutor's ruling. She had found out for herself who had written the insulting comment and provided all the information to the police.

"Many people said that it does not make sense to report a crime, because it does not lead to anything. Fortunately, there is a police officer in my immediate circle, and he said that yes, such a crime can and must be reported. I thought it [a prosecution] was going to happen, but then it didn’t," Ahmed says.

She queries what kind of signal is sent if people are allowed to use such derogatory terms in social media without consequences.

"Nothing will be done about such clear hate speech, even though hate speech is a big social problem in Finland. I wonder what right one investigating officer or prosecutor has to decide that a word is insignificant when they will never have personal experience of it. They look at it only from a technical point of view, although its impact at the societal level should be understood," Ahmed says.

Prosecutor: No one should write anything like this

Martina Rännälä, the regional prosecutor who made the decision to drop the case, emphasised to Yle that the decision centred around assessing the comment’s criminal significance.

"The suspected act in this case has been, in terms of overall criminal law, relatively minor. However, this does not mean that writing such a comment would not have been completely inappropriate, and no one should write such comments on any platform," Rännälä says.

According to the general guidelines of the Public Prosecutor's Office, pre-trial investigations are limited to the extent that they must use the resources of public authorities appropriately and cost-effectively.

However, earlier this month, the European Commission criticised Finland for the low number of charges for hate crime cases, and called on Finland to ensure that everyone who commits an act of hate speech is properly prosecuted and punished.

According to Rännälä, in this case, no more than a light fine would have been expected for the suspected act. The decision was also influenced by the fact that it was one individual comment within a long thread of other comments.

"The comment was written in Instagram on a post where it is overwhelmed by other comments as new comments are always added to the public post," Rännälä says.

Social media comments can lead to verdicts

According to Ahmed, her own comment received a lot of likes, which increased its visibility.

"This person wrote their own comment under mine and that prompted several more comments, making the comment more visible. There will be a feeling as to whether the police and the prosecutor are properly acquainted with this. Or is there an attitude that social media cannot be controlled, that it is impossible," Ahmed asks.

Much publicity has been given to the case where journalist Johanna Vehkoo was convicted in the District Court and the Court of Appeal of defaming an Oulu city councillor.

Vehkoo had called the man a "racist" and "Nazi clown," among other things, in a Facebook post in 2016. She has applied for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s verdict last September.

Rännälä did not want to comment on Vehko's case because she does not know the details, but says that a case-by-case assessment is emphasized in suspected defamation.

"In the case [of Ahmed], it was precisely these specific features that led to the decision being taken: the fact that it was a single racist comment written on such a platform and within such a discussion," Rännälä says.

Second case under investigation

Ahmed was also the target of racist messages and comments last spring after starting as an anchor for Yle’s Somali-language coronavirus news bulletins.

"After the first broadcast, I received messages about "neekeri" and "whore", and saying that a "neekeri" and a Muslim had no business here. In addition, a video was published on the internet, in which Finnish subtitles with hate speech were placed on top of the news broadcast," she says.

Ahmed adds that Yle filed a criminal report on the matter. Helsinki Police told news agency STT that a preliminary investigation is still in progress.

Yle’s initiative to provide coronavirus news and information in different languages has received widespread praise, and has been nominated for a journalism award.

Nonetheless, Ahmed says the situation has improved a lot since the early 1990s, when she faced "quite incomprehensible" racism while she growing up in eastern Helsinki.

"In Kontula, the skinheads caused trouble for the Somalis, and this was considered quite normal. We were also driven by car to school from time to time, even though the school was very close," she recalls, adding that she has thought that the situation is different now that things have been identified and talked about.

"It is strange that at the same time as it is said that we must fight against hate speech, nothing follows even from such clear cases. Still, crime reporting is constantly encouraged. Authorities must also show that words have consequences, and this is most evident when a person is sentenced," Ahmed says.

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