13 January 2015

Reasons not to publish images of Prophet Muhammad

While in my last post I upheld the freedom of expression, I also alluded to the responsibility we all bear to exercise restraint when it comes to publications that might offend or humiliate others based on religion, cultural practice, gender, etc.
So, for example, I won't be reading Little Black Sambo to any child. I won't use the N-word. I will challenge anyone who denies the Holocaust or who tries to minimise the effects of rape. And I don't need a law to force me to make these choices. Nor should it take the barrel of a gun.
In a civilized society, we temper our freedom of speech with respect for the harm that has been done through discrimination, violence or genocide. As a university teacher, I do not regard it as a restriction on my academic freedom to abide by such norms, nor is it 'political correctness'. Offending people or giving voice to harmful opinions has no educational value. The examination and critique of such of offences to humanity may, on the other hand, have value for making us better human beings.
To get to this point requires that we pay attention to others. If moderate Muslims can persuade us not to publish images of the Prophet because of the offence it causes to their faith, then is it really a problem to desist from doing so? For me, it's not.
Defending the right to publish such images is not necessarily doing anything much to uphold freedom of expression, given that we do abide by some restrictions already – mostly voluntarily, but sometimes by law. I note that French law has banned Holocaust-denial, and that may be appropriate given the magnitude of that mass-murder and the history of anti-semitism in France. (And they also initially banned Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth (1961) because it advocated violent opposition to colonisation, e.g. by the French in Algeria.)
The trouble is, some people say that if we now concede to 'pressure' not to publish images of the Prophet, then we are being cowardly and letting terrorism win. So, should such images be published just to make the point about liberty and to defy terrorists? And never mind the effects on those Muslims who prefer to use words and not guns?
A voluntary restriction on such images can be made out of respect, rather than fear. And there is nothing wrong with doing so.
Pity, though, the city of Bologna where the Basilica of San Petronio's 15th-century frescoes include an image of the Prophet being tortured in Hell. This in turn is an illustration of Canto 28 of Dante's Inferno. The Basilica has been threatened by terrorists more than once. What would you do about that?

Update: I note that the survivors' issue of Charlie Hebdo features an image of the Prophet in conciliatory mood. Quoting from the Guardian: "Newspapers around Europe, including Libération, Le Figaro and Frankfurter Allgemeine have used the image online. The BBC showed it briefly during a newspaper review on Newsnight. In the US, USA Today and the LA Times ran the cover but the New York Times did not. The Guardian – which has not published other Charlie Hebdo covers with images representing the prophet – is running this cover as its news value warrants publication."

Given that my point above was about the voluntary avoidance of using such images, I am not in disagreement with the principled choices that these newspapers have made.

09 January 2015

My right to make you look ridiculous

Regular readers of this blog (both of you!) will know that it is definitely not my habit to ridicule or satirise others. I’m just not that witty. But the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris causes me to consider our dearly-held freedom of expression (and of the press), a freedom that permits publications that may cause offence to, say, a religious or ethnic minority group.
Mainstream western media channels are of course universally condemning the attack in Paris, and people are protesting in order to defy the terrorists’ intentions.
We’re kind of lucky, in a weird way, to have at least one New Zealander who is prepared to stick his head above the parapets and fire off a differing point of view. Derek Fox, former broadcaster and local-body politician, has made good use of his liberty and public profile to express this opinion: “The editor of the French magazine has paid the price for his assumption of cultural superiority and arrogance, he was the bully believing he could insult other people’s culture and with impunity and he believed he would be protected in his racism and bigotry by the French state. Well he was wrong, unfortunately in paying the price for his arrogance he took another 11 people with him.” (From NZ Herald).
That makes it sound like the editor of Charlie Hebdo deserved what he got, and was to blame for the deaths of the others.
Does one deserve to be killed for insulting someone else’s religion? Certainly not, although this would not be the first time that it’s happened. Some extremists use ‘blasphemy’ as their excuse for this kind of brutality.
Perhaps Mr Fox is just exasperated with racist attacks on Maori, and hence he has no sympathy for those who ridicule Islam either. Racism and bigotry are certainly not what we should be sticking up for. Killing people for it is quite another matter, of course.
So, Mr Fox has freedom of expression, and has published his opinion online, and the Herald has given it a further airing. Regardless of his colour or creed, a liberal-democratic country like NZ or like France defends Mr Fox’s right to express those views. Religious and ethnic minority groups benefit from this in particular, as it means that the majority are not allowed to suppress their cultural practices, religious doctrines, languages, etc. Indeed, minority groups can and often do savagely criticize the dominant culture. Victims of oppression are free to express their grievances, as they should be, and that may include ridiculing or satirizing ‘western’ or ‘capitalist’ values.
What the Mr Foxes of the world need to learn, though, is that their liberty cuts both ways. If you want to be protected from oppression and to express your culture and your resistance freely and openly, then you just have to take the odd occasion of satire and ridicule on the chin, because others enjoy the same freedom.
If you feel offended by someone’s cartoon or statement, then you are also at liberty to say so. And may the best argument win.
Now, it is only playing fair if society’s elite or members of the majority culture refrain from ridiculing minorities. The powerful or privileged should be confident and secure enough to brush any off any that comes their way, what’s more. John Key, for example, gets a lot of, often quite savage, criticism and satire. He’s sensible enough not to comment on it if he can avoid it. Muldoon was different, as witnessed by his attitude to the cartoonist Tom Scott.
Perhaps Mr Fox is still upset over the notorious cartoon by Al Nisbett that caused such an outcry in 2013, for being perceived as racist. But, after the murders in Paris, those who drove that outcry might want to think carefully next time about what they may be encouraging.
Yes, let’s continue to condemn racism and religious prejudice. But invoking force (of law or otherwise) to close down that which we believe to be racism and bigotry is ultimately hypocritical and is bound to fail in the long run.

02 January 2015

Gun-mad in Idaho

This is not a 'western'. Due to law passed by the State of Idaho in 2014, the University of Idaho has published a policy on carrying concealed firearms on its campus. A person who holds a valid Idaho "enhanced concealed carry license" can carry weapons on campus. The weapon(s) must "remain concealed at all times [except] in necessary self-defense".
Further to this policy, a university teacher is not permitted to exclude from the classroom any student who may be carrying a concealed weapon. No office supervisor is permitted to ban concealed weapons from the workplace, provided that the persons carrying them have a licence.
University staff are not permitted to require students with "concealed carry" licenses to disclose the fact that they hold such a license. So no-one would know who might be carrying concealed weapons anyway!
This barbaric policy means that the classroom and the workplace cannot be guaranteed to be free of firearms. And yet the University of Idaho maintains the hypocritical claim that it is "committed to maintaining a safe work, living and learning environment on campus". A safe (non-military) learning environment is surely one that bans firearms. My advice to anyone contemplating visiting or studying at a US university is to check the State law and the university policy on weapons before going. Campuses such as the University of Idaho should be avoided.

16 December 2014

Mark Mitchell MP gets it wrong

The MP who chaired the select committee considering the anti-terrorist legislation that was recently rushed through Parliament, Mark Mitchell, says the bill is "100 per cent" justified due to the tragic hostage crisis that occurred in Sydney.
This is misleading. The purpose of the Countering Terrorist Fighters Bill was to introduce "measures allowing the monitoring and investigation of foreign terrorist fighters and other violent extremists, and the restriction and disruption of their travel."
We know that the Sydney gunman, Man Haron Monis, was already facing criminal charges in Australia, and was on bail. Hence, he was known to police and had appeared in Court. If the same thing were to happen in New Zealand, therefore, the perpetrator would already be under police surveillance and would be unable to flee the country. So, the controversial measures in the Countering Terrorist Fighters Bill (24-hour warrantless surveillance and passport cancellation) would not have been useful in preventing or responding to such an event.
Questions will no doubt be asked in Australia about whether their bail laws are adequate for anticipating such risks.
Furthermore, the Countering Terrorist Fighters Bill relied for its definition of "terrorism" on the relevant section of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. A terrorist act is one that is "carried out for the purpose of advancing an ideological, political, or religious cause." One of Man Haron Monis's demands was for an ISIS flag; but now that the gunman is dead, we may never know what his aims actually were. It appears that he was mentally unwell, moreover, which casts doubt on whether he had any clearly thought-out objectives at all. Possibly, more information about the man's intentions will emerge in due course. But, so far, we should not jump to the conclusion that the hostage crisis was "terrorist" rather than just "criminal".
On a pragmatic political note, the Labour Party must be thanking their lucky stars that they supported the new Bill. Public opinion would be against them now if they hadn't. But the average member of the public does not realise that the Bill is irrelevant to the prevention of the kind of hostage crisis that occurred in Sydney.
Finally, I must add that I feel for the victims and their families.

29 November 2014

Cancelling passports: A conundrum

The Countering Terrorist Fighters Bill adds to the government's powers to cancel a person's passport, even if overseas, if there is reason to believe that the person is a danger to the security of New Zealand because the person intends to engage in a terrorist act. So, here's a scenario for you to think about.
Suppose two NZ'ers, Alex and Kim, are planning to travel overseas, ostensibly as tourists. Alex flies to Vienna, but has a visa to enter Ukraine. Kim flies to Moscow.
Alex then travels by land to Ukraine to enlist as an international volunteer with the Right Sector militia. This is an ultra-nationalist militia that is supported by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry and which engages in Ukraine's 'anti-terrorist' campaign in the eastern provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk. These 'anti-terrorist' forces have been fighting separatist rebels for many months now, and the Ukrainian armed forces have been responsible for the deaths of many hundreds of unarmed Ukrainian civilians.
On arriving in Moscow, Kim heads south and crosses the very porous border into Donetsk province to join the pro-Russian rebel forces there. These forces too have been responsible for the deaths of many innocent civilians (including, in all probability, the passengers and crew of MH17).
So, whose passport should be cancelled? Alex's, for joining a neo-fascist militia that kills and terrorises innocent people; or Kim's, for joining an armed uprising that has been labelled 'terrorist' by the same government that supports the neo-fascist Right Sector and that has been killing its own citizens? Or neither? Or both? Is either person 'a danger to the security of New Zealand'?

27 November 2014

The Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill

In the one day allowed for submissions on this Bill, I managed to submit one on time! It's not very well researched, but the best I could do. So here are the edited highlights of my submission:

The Bill allows for the cancellation of passports on grounds of national security. This includes the provision that the Minister ‘may recall, cancel, or retain possession of a New Zealand passport for a person who is outside New Zealand’. The cancellation of passports is only permitted where, on reasonable grounds, it is believed that the person may be intending to enagage in or facilitate a terrorist act, proliferation of WMDs, or other unlawful acts likely to cause serious damage to New Zealand’s interests, and that the cancellation is necessary and sufficient for the purpose.
It is conceivable that a person could leave New Zealand on an NZ passport for, say, the UK on apparently legitimate grounds, and then seek to undertake further travel to a different location where they might be intending to join a group regarded as ‘terrorist.’
The cancellation of a passport is, in any circumstances, a serious step that denies a person certain fundamental human rights, and hence should only be undertaken for very good reason and on sound information. To cancel a person’s passport while overseas could effectively render a person stateless and unable even to return to their home country. The danger is that this provision could become, in effect, a form of banishment by executive decree.
As the explanatory note informs us that the general criminal law and terrorism offences address the most serious forms of offending relating to FTFs, it would be preferable to find ways to bring suspects back to New Zealand so that they can be put on trial under due process of law. I cannot see how cancellation of the passport aids in bringing the offender to justice.
I recommend that a relevant condition for such a decision may be that the person whose passport is to be cancelled while outside New Zealand was believed, on reasonable grounds, to be planning to travel to a particular location with the intention of joining a group engaged in terrorist acts. Such a decision should not be permitted merely for the purpose of preventing the person from returning to New Zealand. Repatriation of the suspect, potentially to face charges, should be the primary aim of such provisions.

The Bill would amend the NZSIS Act allowing for the exercise of powers that would be available under intelligence warrants or visual surveillance warrants without first obtaining such a warrant for up to 48 hours. While there are conditions, limitations and accountabilities surrounding the use of this measure in the Bill, this is a step towards greater executive powers, without judicial oversight, even if limited in time.
There is insufficient evidence provided in the explanatory notes to justify this increase in surveillance powers. It is hard to understand why such new powers are needed when the Police are able already to respond to threats from armed individuals in the normal course of their duties under present laws.
I recommend that the new section providing for 48-hour warrantless surveillance orders be deleted. It may of course be reintroduced to the House at a later stage, if the government is able to satisfy the public and members of parliament that the 48-hour warrantless surveillance is really necessary.

Further comments:
Like many other New Zealanders, I am dismayed at the rushed process of this Bill. Allowing people only one day to make a submission is not acceptable for such significant powers in a democratic legislature. While I agree that the New Zealand Parliament needs to review and amend the law prudently in order to take account of evolving threats, I am not convinced that the present threat-level justifies the drastically reduced time-frame. It is conceivable that an event similar to the Boston Marathon bombing or the attack at the parliament buildings in Ottawa could happen in New Zealand; and it is believable that some New Zealanders are seeking to join foreign terrorist groups.
There may therefore be some merit in refining or extending some powers. But the potential threats do not warrant the curtailed timeframe for this Bill, especially as the present law provides for sanctions and powers to deal with criminals and terrorists. Even though the present Bill does have a sunset clause, for 2018, by that time the powers may have become normalised within the intelligence services, and a future government will want to retain them in spite of ongoing public concerns. More careful consideration at the present stage is the better approach.
It is important for the credibility of such a law that the New Zealand public is, on balance, satisfied that human rights and security concerns are addressed properly by our parliament.


24 November 2014

Dirty Politics redux

The report of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) into the deliberate release of an SIS briefing note to an attack blogger does not support every single detail presented in chapter 3 of Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics. But it does confirm the basic story, and it vindicates Hager's decision to publish, based on public interest.
As the Herald reported it, the attack blogger "requested and published politically damaging material about former Labour Leader Phil Goff from the SIS after being instructed to ask for the material by Prime Minister John Key's staff." This politically motivated leak from the PM's office was requested (after a tip-off) under the Official Information Act; and it was "expedited," according to the attack blogger himself, by a staffer in the PM's office.
Hager's case that the PM must have known about this skullduggery has not yet been supported, however. The PM will deny that he knew. But this will put him in an awkward dilemma. If he knew, then it would imply that he gave permission to release a classified security briefing for political ends, and that would be bad for his credibility, especially as he is about to ask Parliament to increase SIS powers.
But, if he didn't know, then why didn't he know that a breach of conventions of the democratic rule of law was going on in his own offices. Surely, if he were a trustworthy PM, he would have put a stop to it, had he known about it!
His excuse before the election when all of this blew up was that he was on holiday in Hawaii at the time of the briefing. And anyway, he said, "New Zealanders don't care about" the whole affair.
You might ask, "Why should we care? It wasn't anything major." 
The reason why we, the public, should care is that the SIS's former chief executive and the PM's staff had deliberately used normally classified intelligence-service information for a political purpose that had nothing at all to do with national security. That is, they just wanted to embarrass the leader of the Opposition. Now, this particular incident may not have turned out to be very harmful, but it could have set a very dangerous precedent by which the SIS and GCSB get used for spying on and discrediting political opponents. And that, dear readers, signals the beginnings of a Police State. So, yes we must take this incident seriously. And this kind of thing must be stamped out. Hence, if the PM did not know about it, then he ought to have known. And he certainly must exert greater control over his advisers in future.

(NB: Written before the release of the full report).