The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Christchurch Terror Attack made it clear New Zealand had failed to hear a swarm of messages inciting an audience to hate a community of New Zealanders.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern invited this observation when she sought to find out how the March 15 attack happened; what could have been done to stop it; and how to keep New Zealanders safe.
On release of the report, Ardern initially singled out firearms licensing and our security agencies as two areas where lessons were to be heeded and significant change needed.
However, deeper into her response was a plan “to update our current hate speech legislation”. Ardern was at pains to recognise it would be more contentious than tackling firearms registration or carpeting our intelligence bosses.
“We are conscious there are a range of views on this issue,” she said.
We have been hearing these views, particularly since the Government announced changes to the Human Rights Act to include more protected groups and the Crimes Act to make it an offence to “intentionally incite/stir up, maintain or normalise hatred” against any such group. Breaches would be punishable by a maximum of three years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000.
National Party Leader Judith Collins has said citing the mosque attacks as a reason for tackling hate speech is “disingenuous”. However, the royal commission report dedicates a chapter of some 1000 words to the role of “hate speech”.
At the Christchurch Call to Action in Paris, it was made clear that the freedom to live-stream and view terrorist and violent extremist content — designed to sow fear, hatred and horror and inspire more of the same — should be curtailed. In this instance, it was said, collective responsibilities should outweigh personal rights. This is also the balance we must seek with hate speech.
As a newspaper and media company, we would naturally argue for more freedoms to speak. The chilling effect of any stifling of voices is anathema to what should be an inalienable right in any society aspiring to call itself free.
That said, free speech comes with responsibility.Speaking freely does not mean it’s acceptable to incite hostility.
Ardern said the release of the commission’s findings: “Muslim New Zealanders should be safe. Anyone who calls New Zealand home, regardless of race, religion, sex or sexual orientation should be safe. New Zealanders deserve a system that does its best to keep you safe, and that is what we are committed to building.”
That is surely what most of us want.
In the aftermath of the mosque attacks, Muslims spoke of previous attempts to raise the alarm over recurring incitements which were making them feel unsafe. That is surely one of the benchmarks. Calling someone a “boomer” is unlikely to make a person fear for their safety.
Hate speech will never be stamped out by laws. Well-scripted legislation can prosecute the worst offences and clearly indicate that we aim to be an inclusive society where well-considered views can be expressed freely without inciting hate.
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