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Shire of Dundas spends $4,500 on legal letters to residents over ‘attack’ comments on Facebook

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Peter wearing a blue check shirt, standing outside in the rural town of Norseman, with gumtrees and dirt.

A regional council in Western Australia’s Goldfields has defended spending thousands of dollars to send cease-and-desist letters to residents over critical comments they posted on social media.  

King & Wood Mallesons, one of the world’s largest law firms, drafted cease and desist letters on behalf of the Shire of Dundas, demanding Facebook posts be taken down and a written apology provided.  

The shire, which has fewer than 700 residents from Norseman to Eucla at the South Australian border, alleges the online comments defame its president Laurene Bonza and chief executive Peter Fitchat.

The letters, one of which was seen by the ABC, were sent to at least three residents. 

Ms Smith said she received a legal letter sent on behalf of the shire. (Supplied: Pat Smith)

Pat Smith, 75, received a letter from the shire’s lawyers on July 14. 

Ms Smith, who said she was diabetic and did not drive, said she had no intention of apologising. 

“It doesn’t make any sense to me. Basically it’s curtailing my freedom of speech,” she said. 

“They’ll have hard cheese in getting any damages out of me, because I’m a pensioner and that’s all the income I have.”

Leon Cuso, 71, said he felt equally baffled by the letter he received.

“They want to suppress you talking,” he said.

old man wearing glasses and a blue jumper

Leon Cuso said apologising would mean admitting fault. (Supplied: Leon Cuso)

‘Four years’ of insults

Mr Fitchat defended the decision to spend about $4,500 to engage lawyers and said it was not “vindictive”. 

“We are here for the community, but if you are going to attack us on Facebook, well, don’t be surprised if we come for you,” he said. 

Mr Fitchat said the council had contemplated involving lawyers for nearly two years before engaging representation.

“It’s been four years of being insulted by a handful of people, and that’s the end of it, no more,” he said.  

Shire of Dundas president Laurene Bonza and CEO Peter Fitchat.

The Shire of Dundas alleges people defamed its president Laurene Bonza and CEO Peter Fitchat. (ABC Esperance: Emma Field )

The Shire of Dundas has been at the centre of controversy recently, with the only GP in Norseman abruptly closing his clinic after a dispute with the council.

The council had refused to meet long-serving GP Graham Rowlands’ request for up to $300,000 in additional locum funding.

A number of Norseman residents blamed the council for the GP’s departure.

“If we have the money, we pay, but we don’t, so we have to consider what we do,” Mr Fitchat said.

Action follows Kalgoorlie-Boulder vote

The legal action follows similar moves in 2019 by the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, which voted to allow elected members and staff to access funds for legal action when a constituent’s comment was defamatory and targeted the person.

The council said at the time that the volume of abusive and defamatory comments was escalating and becoming more personal. 

blond man wearing a black jacket

Local Government Minister David Michael said legal costs were sometimes unavoidable. (ABC Goldfields: Andrew Chounding)

Local Government Minister David Michael said councils needed to be prudent in how they spent ratepayers’ money.

“Ratepayer money and spending it well is important,” he said.

“When it comes to legal costs and involving lawyers in matters, sometimes that is unavoidable, but councils should be very prudent as to when that is used.”

Mr Michael did not comment directly on the Norseman dispute, but said if residents were unhappy with the actions of their shire, they could vote for change in October’s local government elections.

Council to seek advice

Mr Fitchat invited the recipients of the legal letters to attend council meetings, urging residents to use official channels, and not Facebook, to voice any complaints. 

A roundabout in a regional town centre with sculptures of camels in the centre.

Norseman had a population of just 555 people at the 2021 census. (ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

“We don’t mind the raising of the concerns with the doctor, the IGA and the post office, but we have the big, big problem of being called names,” he said.

“If you want to run the council through Facebook, that’s not going to work. 

“If you don’t want to listen and resort to calling people names on Facebook, we’ll use the right way to then stop that.”

Mr Fitchat said if residents did not comply with requests in the legal letters, he would seek further advice, including from the WA Local Government Association (WALGA), before deciding how to proceed.

The ABC has contacted WALGA for comment. 

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Facebook Faces Yet Another Outage: Platform Encounters Technical Issues Again

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Facebook Problem Again

Uppdated: It seems that today’s issues with Facebook haven’t affected as many users as the last time. A smaller group of people appears to be impacted this time around, which is a relief compared to the larger incident before. Nevertheless, it’s still frustrating for those affected, and hopefully, the issues will be resolved soon by the Facebook team.

Facebook had another problem today (March 20, 2024). According to Downdetector, a website that shows when other websites are not working, many people had trouble using Facebook.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has had issues. Just a little while ago, there was another problem that stopped people from using the site. Today, when people tried to use Facebook, it didn’t work like it should. People couldn’t see their friends’ posts, and sometimes the website wouldn’t even load.

Downdetector, which watches out for problems on websites, showed that lots of people were having trouble with Facebook. People from all over the world said they couldn’t use the site, and they were not happy about it.

When websites like Facebook have problems, it affects a lot of people. It’s not just about not being able to see posts or chat with friends. It can also impact businesses that use Facebook to reach customers.

Since Facebook owns Messenger and Instagram, the problems with Facebook also meant that people had trouble using these apps. It made the situation even more frustrating for many users, who rely on these apps to stay connected with others.

During this recent problem, one thing is obvious: the internet is always changing, and even big websites like Facebook can have problems. While people wait for Facebook to fix the issue, it shows us how easily things online can go wrong. It’s a good reminder that we should have backup plans for staying connected online, just in case something like this happens again.

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

LAHORE, Pakistan — A court in Pakistan granted bail to a Christian falsely charged with blasphemy, but he and his family have separated and gone into hiding amid threats to their lives, sources said.

Haroon Shahzad (right) with attorney Aneeqa Maria. | The Voice Society/Morning Star News

Haroon Shahzad, 45, was released from Sargodha District Jail on Nov. 15, said his attorney, Aneeqa Maria. Shahzad was charged with blasphemy on June 30 after posting Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in Chak 49 Shumaali, near Sargodha in Punjab Province, to flee their homes.

Lahore High Court Judge Ali Baqir Najfi granted bail on Nov. 6, but the decision and his release on Nov. 15 were not made public until now due to security fears for his life, Maria said.

Shahzad told Morning Star News by telephone from an undisclosed location that the false accusation has changed his family’s lives forever.

“My family has been on the run from the time I was implicated in this false charge and arrested by the police under mob pressure,” Shahzad told Morning Star News. “My eldest daughter had just started her second year in college, but it’s been more than four months now that she hasn’t been able to return to her institution. My other children are also unable to resume their education as my family is compelled to change their location after 15-20 days as a security precaution.”

Though he was not tortured during incarceration, he said, the pain of being away from his family and thinking about their well-being and safety gave him countless sleepless nights.

“All of this is due to the fact that the complainant, Imran Ladhar, has widely shared my photo on social media and declared me liable for death for alleged blasphemy,” he said in a choked voice. “As soon as Ladhar heard about my bail, he and his accomplices started gathering people in the village and incited them against me and my family. He’s trying his best to ensure that we are never able to go back to the village.”

Shahzad has met with his family only once since his release on bail, and they are unable to return to their village in the foreseeable future, he said.

“We are not together,” he told Morning Star News. “They are living at a relative’s house while I’m taking refuge elsewhere. I don’t know when this agonizing situation will come to an end.”

The Christian said the complainant, said to be a member of Islamist extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and also allegedly connected with banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, filed the charge because of a grudge. Shahzad said he and his family had obtained valuable government land and allotted it for construction of a church building, and Ladhar and others had filed multiple cases against the allotment and lost all of them after a four-year legal battle.

“Another probable reason for Ladhar’s jealousy could be that we were financially better off than most Christian families of the village,” he said. “I was running a successful paint business in Sargodha city, but that too has shut down due to this case.”

Regarding the social media post, Shahzad said he had no intention of hurting Muslim sentiments by sharing the biblical verse on his Facebook page.

“I posted the verse a week before Eid Al Adha [Feast of the Sacrifice] but I had no idea that it would be used to target me and my family,” he said. “In fact, when I came to know that Ladhar was provoking the villagers against me, I deleted the post and decided to meet the village elders to explain my position.”

The village elders were already influenced by Ladhar and refused to listen to him, Shahzad said.

“I was left with no option but to flee the village when I heard that Ladhar was amassing a mob to attack me,” he said.

Shahzad pleaded with government authorities for justice, saying he should not be punished for sharing a verse from the Bible that in no way constituted blasphemy.

Similar to other cases

Shahzad’s attorney, Maria, told Morning Star News that events in Shahzad’s case were similar to other blasphemy cases filed against Christians.

“Defective investigation, mala fide on the part of the police and complainant, violent protests against the accused persons and threats to them and their families, forcing their displacement from their ancestral areas, have become hallmarks of all blasphemy allegations in Pakistan,” said Maria, head of The Voice Society, a Christian paralegal organization.

She said that the case filed against Shahzad was gross violation of Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which states that police cannot register a case under the Section 295-A blasphemy statute against a private citizen without the approval of the provincial government or federal agencies.

Maria added that Shahzad and his family have continued to suffer even though there was no evidence of blasphemy.

“The social stigma attached with a blasphemy accusation will likely have a long-lasting impact on their lives, whereas his accuser, Imran Ladhar, would not have to face any consequence of his false accusation,” she said.

The judge who granted bail noted that Shahzad was charged with blasphemy under Section 295-A, which is a non-cognizable offense, and Section 298, which is bailable. The judge also noted that police had not submitted the forensic report of Shahzad’s cell phone and said evidence was required to prove that the social media was blasphemous, according to Maria.

Bail was set at 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US $350) and two personal sureties, and the judge ordered police to further investigate, she said.

Shahzad, a paint contractor, on June 29 posted on his Facebook page 1 Cor. 10:18-21 regarding food sacrificed to idols, as Muslims were beginning the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha, which involves slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat.

A Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post, sent it to local social media groups and accused Shahzad of likening Muslims to pagans and disrespecting the Abrahamic tradition of animal sacrifice.

Though Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, the situation became tense after Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers telling people to gather for a protest, family sources previously told Morning Star News.

Fearing violence as mobs grew in the village, most Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.

In a bid to restore order, the police registered a case against Shahzad under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to one year in prison and a fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

Morning Star News is the only independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide complete, reliable, even-handed news in order to empower those in the free world to help persecuted Christians, and to encourage persecuted Christians by informing them that they are not alone in their suffering.

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