Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Naming and shaming of brave rape victims must end

What merits the more severe penalty - tweeting abuse about an unconscious man who is unaware of it, or publicly naming a victim of sexual violence?

Earlier this week, yet another case involving abuse on social networking sites came to court and the outcome - paltry fines for a group of defendants - demonstrates the jaw-dropping inconsistency of the criminal justice system.

Last March, the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch during an FA Cup match at White Hart Lane. He was rushed to hospital, where medical staff battled for hours to save his life. Muamba eventually recovered though not, sadly, to a point where he was able to return to playing football.

On the same afternoon, a drunken student called Liam Stacey from south Wales mocked Muamba and posted "racially aggravated" abuse on Twitter.

Stacey was arrested, charged and sentenced to 56 days in prison. His behaviour was callous, but the penalty seemed out of proportion to the damage done.

The following month, the Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans was sent to prison for five years for rape. His 19-year-old victim showed enormous courage when she reported the assault.

But the court's view of Evans was not shared by his friends and supporters; they rushed onto Twitter and Facebook to vent their rage against his victim.

Rape victims are entitled to lifelong anonymity and nine individuals appeared in court on Monday accused of publishing material likely to identify Evans's victim.

The judge, Andrew Shaw, told the defendants that they had acted with "deliberate malice". He imposed the maximum penalty on each of them - a £624 fine.

If Liam Stacey's behaviour towards an unconscious Muamba merits a prison sentence, why is this offence treated so leniently?

One of the tweets not only named the woman, but urged strangers to find her address.

Convictions are not easy to secure, as campaigners against sexual violence know well, and, in this case, Evans had been found guilty and handed an appropriate sentence. Yet blaming the victim is so reflexive that the defendants simply ignored the verdict.

Abuse of women who say they've been raped is habitual and the effect of social networking sites is to make it more overt.

In a survey carried out this year by the website Mumsnet, more than four-fifths of respondents who said they'd been raped did not report the attack and more than half gave embarrassment, or shame, as the reason.

This is why the offences committed in the Ched Evans case are worse, in my view, than Stacey's abuse of Fabrice Muamba.

I'm not in favour of sending more people to prison, but I'd like to see heavier penalties for naming rape victims, perhaps in the form of community service with organisations that help victims of sexual violence.

This naming and shaming of women who say they've been raped is a form of terrorism. It has to stop.

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