A New Zealand filmmaker who provoked outrage with her online comments about a dead soldier is praising Toronto police for their help, claiming that Auckland officers refused to immediately investigate rape and murder threats against her — allegations that the New Zealand force denies.
Sumner Burstyn, who is married to a Canadian filmmaker from Montreal and is working in Toronto, became the target of a vitriolic internet campaign after making provocative comments about Lance Cpl. Jacinda Baker, a female soldier from New Zealand who was recently killed in Afghanistan.
"We have screen grabs that would make your hair curl, they’re so scary," she told CBC News in a telephone interview, adding that the situation is like a "witch hunt."
Some of the threats came from people who identified themselves as members of the New Zealand military.
"The response was quite surprising to me," she said "I understand that I can say provocative things. I’ve been reasonably outspoken, and I accept that comes with a price. But I did not expect that people from the New Zealand armed defence force would respond in such a terrifying manner."
Burstyn, who has also been referred to as Barbara Sumner-Burstyn, came under fire after one of her Facebook friends shared her status update blasting Baker.
"Oh, so fallen soldier Jacinda Baker liked boxing and baking — did they forget she also liked invading countries we are not at war with, killing innocent people and had no moral compass," Burstyn wrote, adding that the soldier "100 per cent does not deserve our respect."
"You can't have it both ways — oh nice little career with the military and shock horror when you get blown up."
Graphic threats posted online
Following her comments, a former New Zealand soldier created a Facebook page called "Sumner Burstyn give back your NZ Passport!" The page quickly went viral and attracted over 20,000 members before its creator shut it down.
Comments poured expressing shock and outrage, and several called for revenge of a violent nature.
"They encouraged me to commit suicide, and informed me they would run me down and burn my house down. I was barraged with emails threatening murder," Burstyn wrote on her blog, adding that some commenters "described in graphic details the kinds of rape (chainsaws featured) and torture they would subject me to."
Burstyn, who is in Toronto on business, began fearing for the safety of her Auckland-based children after the flood of threatening posts, emails and phone calls — some of which she said were extended to her family.
Someone put one of her old addresses up online, she said, and another volunteered to go there and harass whoever answers. The filmmaker also said she had also seen some Canadians writing that they’ll "get her" in Canada.
"I tear up when I think about [the threats] because they’re so extreme," she said. “That line between online and real was breached.”
Burstyn called Auckland police about the threats and claims they were dismissive. She said they told her to go to Interpol.
"I tried to explain my children and property were at risk right now from a cyber lynch-mob inciting people to leave the safety of the internet and visit my home where my family live," Burstyn wrote in a recent blog post.
Burstyn claims when she contacted Auckland police, an officer responded: "Sorry, there's nothing we can do."
But Burstyn said the Canadian response was "vastly different." She said she called the main number at the Toronto police station at around 1 a.m early Saturday and explained the situation. By 2 a.m, police officers were at her door, she said.
Burstyn said "they were very interested" and was told those kinds of threats are considered a "major crime in Canada."
She said a report was later filed with a Toronto Interpol liaison officer who forwarded the report to police in New Zealand.
New Zealand police deny dismissing threats
A spokesperson for New Zealand police disputes Burstyn’s characterization of the force's response.
In an email to CBC News, Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess said the matter was taken seriously from the outset and dealt with appropriately.
Burgess said the force received two calls from Burstyn, who was in Toronto when she reported the threats.
He says police followed up on her complaint — visiting the New Zealand address she provided and asking neighbours to report suspicious behaviour, for instance.
"Ms Sumner-Burstyn has acknowledged that she made a ‘major gaffe’ through her Facebook comments,” wrote Burgess. “It is disappointing that she now sees fit to comment adversely and inaccurately on the organization which responded properly to her concerns."
Burgess added that once police were satisfied there was “no immediate safety risk,” Burstyn was invited to contact local police in Canada.
“This information was properly forwarded to New Zealand police from Interpol Toronto and is now being fully assessed by detectives in Auckland.”
Noreen Hegarty, spokesperson for the Auckland city police, earlier told CBC News that the force would not "engage publicly in a dispute."
Prime minister weighs in on controversy
Although Burstyn remains critical of the country's military presence in Afghanistan, saying New Zealand is simply helping invade another country for its oil, she has since apologized for singling out one young soldier.
"Of course it was the wrong thing to say, but it certainly did not warrant that kind of response," she told CBC News.
"It’s been a difficult few days. I made a comment on Facebook. A thoughtless comment for which I unreservedly apologize to the family, friends and loved ones of Jacinda Baker," she added in a blog post.
"I bemoan the tragic loss of her valuable life. Certainly my choice of words at the time was not good."
Not all the reactions to the matter have been hot-headed, however, and some observers have focused on how caustic remarks generate more heat than light online.
In an opinion piece published in New Zealand's Taranaki Daily News, Chris Trottier posed the question: Is social media making us more cruel?
The writer criticized comments made by both Burstyn and those targeting her, and argued that the computer screens between feuding parties lessen the "inhibitive effect of close human proximity."
Although he called the filmmaker’s Facebook status an "obnoxious piece of writing," he also searched for context.
"Studying her face, and reading about her many awards for documentary filmmaking — many of them on 'progressive' themes — it is difficult to fathom how Sumner-Burstyn could be capable of such casual cruelty," he wrote.
"By the same token, it is profoundly depressing to read the spittle-flecked responses of her detractors."
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key also weighed in on the controversy, saying that threats against Burstyn were unacceptable.
"Obviously we don't condone some of the reactions but I think it's a highly charged debate and it's important for everyone to be thoughtful," Key said.