Police investigate threat to columnist Rachel Stewart

Police are investigating a complaint from controversial columnist Rachel Stewart after a threatening hand-written message was left in her letterbox and her social media account was inundated with abusive posts.

Stewart says she has been subjected to a string of malicious messages this week, including threats to rape and kill her, following the publication of her fortnightly opinion piece in Fairfax papers, among them the Manawatu Standard, on Monday.

This week's article, headlined "That high-pitched whining must stop", talked about irrigation schemes, water quality, the low milk payout, workplace regulations, suicide, stress and farmers complying with the law.

However, the backlash to the article turned sinister, and Stewart says "sexist, standover tactics and personal slurs" were posted from accounts using pen-names and then circulated via Twitter by prominent members of New Zealand's farming community. A hand-written anonymous note saying: "See we not so DumB we Don't No where u live. Bitch.[sic]" was also delivered to Stewart's house, prompting her to lay a complaint and for police to launch an investigation.

Stewart said she accepted people would disagree with her or criticise her work, and she welcomed robust debate. However, responses of an overtly sexual or derogatory nature abusing individuals were offensive and unnecessary.

"No one has discussed the issues raised in the column at all - choosing instead to attack rather than engage."

Stewart said she was appalled that several prominent members of Federated Farmers and Dairy NZ "favourited" or retweeted crude comments. Dairy NZ did not respond to questions.

Federated Farmers spokesman Don Carson said there was a staff policy about social media use, and rules and conventions the hundreds of elected regional representatives were usually familiar with.

"We were aware of the tweet exchanges as they came through, but we saw nothing other than [Rachel's] statement that she received those threats and they came from Federated Farmers," he said.

"We would view any threats very seriously, as does the criminal justice system . . . but until those allegations are backed up, or otherwise, we have nothing more to say."

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The tweets have since been removed, but Stewart was in touch with Twitter, which was retrieving them from online archives.

"Free speech is important to me but hate speech is unacceptable . . . I don't believe you can say things about rape and death, or using a bull to inseminate you, shagging girlfriends or putting you with the offal, and get away with it," Stewart said.

"I've written columns about millions of subjects, in fact I have written 108 of them over the last 4 1/2 years, and none of the issues I have touched on have delivered the same amount of hatred."

One Twitter user, Chris Claridge, the managing director of Carrickmore Nutrition, an infant formula company which sells dairy products overseas, watched the incident unfold online. "The general tone was antagonistic and aggressive," he said. "However, farmers are very stressed financially and are under a lot of pressure at the moment, and what Rachel may have inadvertently done here is trigger that and provide a mechanism for an outburst, but it does not excuse in any way, shape or form, threats or attacks on a personal level.

"People may disagree with what she has to say, but she has a right to say what she wants to say and she shouldn't be subjected to personal attacks for that."

 - Manawatu Standard

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