Twittering gets man arrested. Inciting financial panic or protected speech?

Most of us know that freedom of speech doesn’t cover yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, or making false accusations or purposefully damaging someone else’s reputations. Most of us even understand why and there are laws that define what isn’t protected speech.

Those laws exist in many places around the world, like Guatemala, and whatever isn’t covered there has to be considered protected speech. In Guatemala there is a law that defines the crime of “inciting financial panic” that says no one should use false information to fool people into creating a situation of chaos in banks, funds and other financial businesses.

Guatemala also has a somewhat delicate problem right now. The president Alvaro Colom has been implied in the assassination of a prominent lawyer over a case of corruption also involving a bank, Banrural.

The entire case stinks like no other in post-dictatorship Guatemala and will no doubt have serious repercusions, specially because now people have all kinds of instruments to talk: email, blogs, forums, youtube, facebook and twitter. Today’s generation won’t stay quiet. There’s even a hashtag in twitter #Escandalogt to make it easy to follow the conversation.

One of the people in this conversation is @jeanfer, who twitted last night that the first step people should take is getting all the money out of Banrural and break the corrupted bank.

For the Guatemalan authorities this constituted an incitement to financial panic, telling all the people to get their money out. However, it’s clear that he’s not brandishing any insider-information or citing a financial reason to do so. He’s actually advocating boycotting the bank. That’s a completely valid move that citizen’s have when dealing with powerful governments and corporations.

Of course, @jeanfer was promptly arrested (can’t let dangerous characters roam the cyberspace unwatched unlike murderers that no one can catch), his computer seized and a media circus has been following the case.

Spanish language twitterers and bloggers are now trying to bring @jeanfer’s case to the attention of the world. I’m doing it in English because Latinamerican governments are more likely to react to pressure in English than in Spanish. BoingBoing has a good summary and you can also join in the twitts trying to bring this issue to the attention of the public.

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