Videos, accusations posted online after Halifax teen's homicide raise legal concerns

Halifax Regional Police have said they are investigating whether any online posts relating to Ahmad Al Marrach's homicide have violated the Youth Criminal Justice Act.  (iHaMoo/Shutterstock - image credit)
Halifax Regional Police have said they are investigating whether any online posts relating to Ahmad Al Marrach's homicide have violated the Youth Criminal Justice Act. (iHaMoo/Shutterstock - image credit)

Legal and ethical questions are being raised with content shared online related to the homicide of 16-year-old Ahmad Al Marrach in Halifax.

In the days following Al Marrach's death on April 22, social media users identified and accused teenagers online of being involved in the homicide. Videos have also made their way online, showing Al Marrach wounded and bleeding after being stabbed outside the Halifax Shopping Centre.

"To continue to distribute any images that have to do with this young man's death, to put it lightly, is beyond insensitive," Const. John MacLeod, a spokesperson for Halifax Regional Police, told CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia on Monday.

Halifax police warned they are investigating whether any online posts have violated the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Although there are some exceptions, the act prohibits the publication of the identity of a person under the age of 18 who is accused or found guilty of a crime. Information that could identify the youth is also banned from publication under the act.

An online summary of the federal act says publication of a young person's name would impede rehabilitation efforts, detrimentally affect the young person and, in the long run, compromise public safety.

"Not all instances are as severe or as tragic as this one," said MacLeod. "But the idea is that young people, hopefully, will be able to rehabilitate themselves."

Preventing posts difficult 

But online anonymity poses a challenge to enforcing the law, said Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus with the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University.

"It's not impossible, but it is difficult many times to identify who is the person that's posting the information," said MacKay. "We need to produce way better digital citizens in our society."

Al Marrach family image
Al Marrach family image

MacKay said there is a growing movement to hold social media companies liable for harmful content.

The Online Harms Act, proposed by the federal government and introduced in February, targets seven types of content, including content that incites violence or hatred or sexualizes children.

He said videos like the ones circulating of Al Marrach injured from the attack may have a place in the proposed act.

"Maybe we should also think of this sort of explicit violence as another kind of form of pornography," he said.

A spokesperson for the app Snapchat said "gratuitous violence" is prohibited on the social media platform.

"If we discover severe offences, such as causing physical or emotional harm to another Snapchatter, we immediately disable the violating account and apply measures to prevent them from getting back on the platform," a statement said.

"We escalate emergencies to law enforcement and work to support their investigations."

A spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said they "routinely respond to valid law enforcement requests" about content on the platforms. Minors get the most protection from bullying and harassment, according to Meta.

While Al Marrach's homicide occurred outside school hours, MacKay said he would be surprised if the role of social media does not come up in an upcoming report on violence in the public school system by Nova Scotia's auditor general.

"The problems of violence and the problems of abuse and misuse of social media that we see in schools are also reflected in the larger society," MacKay said.