A BBC journalist has told a judge in Dublin how she hoped bringing an “obsessive” teenage troll to court would “shine a light” on the dangers of social media and act as a deterrent.
In September, the 17-year-old boy from Dublin pleaded guilty to harassing BBC News Northern Ireland journalist Aileen Moynagh between October 25th, 2020, until the end of February this year.
She came face to face with him for the first time on Tuesday at his latest hearing in the Dublin Children’s Court.
The boy, who has a range of complex disorders, stalked her online after developing an "obsessive crush". He cannot be identified because he is a minor.
The teen had been previously cautioned about similar activities against two RTÉ journalists and had an "unhealthy interest" in women journalists. In October, the court heard he recently became obsessed with a third female journalist in RTÉ.
The DPP is also preparing a file in another investigation about the boy. He does not have permission to leave Dublin unless his parents or gardaí approve.
In addition, he must stay out of the North and parts of south Dublin, including the RTÉ campus.
Adjourning sentencing on Tuesday, Judge John Lindsay warned him that his bail would be revoked if he broke the bail terms.
Updated probation and welfare reports were sought.
Defence solicitor Eoghan O'Sullivan told the court the boy, accompanied to court by his father, had "fallen between two stools" when he needed help from health services due to a lack of funding.
However, the court heard that Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, would carry out a welfare conference.
Earlier, Detective Garda Ken McGreevy outlined a litany of unsolicited and unwanted communications from the boy, then aged 16, via email, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
At one point, the boy travelled to Belfast despite being warned by gardaí not to contact her, and he went to within a couple of hundred yards of her workplace.
The “high functioning” boy had been barred from Twitter 150 times under various aliases.
Out of fear, she moved out of her house for five days and was concerned about her movements.
She reported it to the PSNI, but the complaint was not passed on to the Republic, and the journalist later contacted the gardaí.
Some messages were threatening and very upsetting or contained pages of rants.
Initially, the teenager's communications seemed innocent, but it was a "spider's web" and became abusive and emotionally threatening.
Victim impact statement
Ms Moynagh delivered a moving victim impact statement in court on Tuesday.
She said: "At times, I look back and think this has all been some crazy upsetting dream, but then leave the house or walk out the door of work and get that uneasy feeling and know it's very, very real."
“Working as a journalist means people contact you with stories or to ask for help. And that’s how this started,” she said.
Visibly upset, she recalled how on October 25th, 2020, she received an email purportedly from a woman asking for help with her son.
“Her story was that he had been contacting girls online, somewhat going too far, and was now threatened by people in Omagh – my home-town.”
However, it was actually from the defendant, and "I was his latest victim".
Three weeks later, "I just started working a late shift at work, and the phone pinged with a Twitter notification.
There was a screenshot of "a fake Instagram profile of my picture and a very unpleasant description. I was shocked, but this was minor".
"Next, I received emails to my personal and work accounts with the same picture, which was of me and my partner, asking who he was, saying that they'd been looking at me for four months and that this was a big mistake on my part. I burst into tears. But this was just the start of one of the worst days ever. There was much more to come."
Hours later, she was copied into an email to a work colleague. It had personal information, and she said, "it was scary, it was crude, and it upset me further".
One of Northern Ireland’s MPs received a threatening email about the journalist. The politician was so worried she contacted Ms Moynagh and went to the police about the message.
In it, the boy had claimed he met Ms Moynagh twice and said he was "intensely angry that I had a boyfriend, that retaliation was the obvious thing to do and that he hadn't even started yet". He wanted "to get back at me any way he could and had huge amounts of information on my personal life". He also said he had once cost a woman her job because of false allegations.
Ms Moynagh told the court she was "gobsmacked" and had no idea who it could be. She described how she felt violated and no longer safe in her home. "I felt like I was watching some fictional TV drama, but unfortunately, I wasn't.
"I felt I was constantly looking over my shoulder, suspecting every male I walked past or saw in the local shop. And the trolling continued."
She recalled how she constantly checked her phone, waiting for more messages and searching for her name in case something was written about her.
Ms Moynagh had to contact social media companies repeatedly. She said it was "exhausting", and photos appeared online, taken from friends' accounts.
"I don't see this as a victory. There are no winners here today, and I find it incredibly sad, and in a way, I feel guilty, that this is the situation we all find ourselves in."
She did not know what he looked like until she saw him for the first time at Tuesday's hearing.
"Sometimes, I think you have to face your fears so you can move on, and today is the first step in that process. Hopefully, now I can have closure."
She told the court she found the press coverage difficult. However, she added: “I hope that this case and its media coverage will shine a light on the dangers of social media, how stalking and harassment should not and will not be tolerated, and hopefully it will deter others from doing it.”
"I had to bang my head against brick walls in trying to fight this with little to no support or advice on what to do until I spoke to the gardaí," she said.
Addressing the teenager directly in court, she said, "I hope you'll look back at this point in your life and see it as the day thing turned around for you. While I couldn't have always said this, I don't wish you any ill; I just want you to stop."
She learned that the health services had let the boy down, and she hoped the case would make a difference, "not just for him but for his family, so that hopefully they never have to go through anything like this again".
The case resumes in January.