A man who posted the word “burn” beneath a story about a black migrant has been given a suspended sentence for hate speech and fined €2000.

56-year old St Paul’s Bay resident Mark Vella posted the single-worded comment beneath a Lovin Malta article published in October 2021. 

The story concerned a migrant living in Malta and attracted a thread of comments by readers. 

One ran along the lines that: “They’ll go up to Mount Carmel and they’ll release him a few days later. Then they’ll go to court, give him a small fine and back out he goes.”

Another reader added, “this is the thanks we get.”

That was where Vella joined the discussion and his comment was, “Aħraq (burn).”

That single word was enough to trigger investigations by the police, who tracked down the suspect.

Vella released a police statement on March 15 and police then charged him with incitement to hatred as well as misuse of electronic communications equipment.

After hearing submissions by both parties the court, presided over by magistrate Ian Farrugia, observed that the accused’s comment was to be taken in context.

The comment had been directed towards a “dark-skinned” foreign national living in Marsa and that context was significant, given the considerable number of such foreigners living in that area.

Taken in that context, the accused’s single-worded comment, “Aħraq,” allowed no room for doubt, said the court, concluding that such comment amounted to “threatening and abusive speech” that incited hatred.

The court made reference to three judgments delivered in separate cases, stating that it had borne in mind the “clear and unequivocal pronouncements” made therein.

The most recent was a judgment delivered by the Court of Criminal Appeal against Brandon Bartolo, who was found guilty in 2019 of inciting racial hatred through comments posted on anti-migrant Ghaqda Patrijotti Maltin’s Facebook page, targeting social inclusion campaigner Sara Ezabe.

In that case, Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera had quashed the accused’s previous acquittal by the Magistrates’ Court, declaring that in such cases the prosecution did not need to prove the accused’s intention to insult.

It sufficed to prove the publication of such comments which, in the mind of the average reader, would lower esteem vis-à-vis the subject targeted by those comments, the appeals court declared.

In light of such considerations, Magistrate Farrugia declared that the charges were sufficiently proved, thus condemning the accused to a three-month jail term suspended for two years as well as a fine of €2,000.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us