No Voice for Hate: Responding to the New Zealand Shooter with Censorship

By Caitlin McBride

On March 16, 2019, a gunman unleashed terror at the Linwood Islamic Centre, a Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.[1] The suspect, a 28-year-old, fired indiscriminately, killing fifty people and injuring fifty more.[2] Even more distressing, the gunman broadcast his rampage on Facebook live, streaming live video as he killed.[3] The gunman also had released a seventy-four-page manifesto online earlier in the day, praising other shooters and right-wing politicians as inspirations for the shooting and spouting extremist ideology.[4]

The response to the deadliest mass shooting in modern New Zealand history has been swift and strong: news coverage and memorials have focused on celebrating the lives of each of the victims and supporting a grieving community,[5] more than a thousand New Zealand residents have voluntarily turned over firearms,[6] and the New Zealand Government has passed a ban on semiautomatic weapons.[7] However, some of the responsive measures have drawn global criticism: namely, the rampant censorship of any information relating to the shooter.

Although New Zealand law does protect freedom of speech,[8] under the Films, Videos & Publications Classification Act 1993, that protection can be limited for certain types of “objectionable” speech.[9] According to the Act, speech is objectionable “if it describes, depicts, expresses, or otherwise deals with matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty, or violence in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good.”[10]

On March 20th, 2019, New Zealand’s Chief Censor David Shanks classified the shooter’s Facebook live video and the manifesto as “officially objectionable,”[11] ordering that “[p]eople who have downloaded this document, or printed it, should destroy any copies.”[12] As officially objectionable material, anyone in New Zealand found knowingly in possession of the video or manifesto can be subject to a fine of up to $50,000 and ten years imprisonment (or fourteen years for distributing either one).[13] At least one person has already been arrested on this count and is facing charges.[14]

This harsh censorship is part of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s strategy to “undermine the attempts by the suspect . . . to gain global notoriety.”[15] Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has even “pledged never to utter [the shooter’s] name publicly,” and encouraged news media to do the same.[16] Chief Censor David Shanks notes that the video and manifesto “promotes, encourages and justifies acts of murder and terrorist violence against identified groups of people. . . It identifies specific places for potential attack in New Zealand, and refers to the means by which other types of attack may be carried out. It contains justifications for acts of tremendous cruelty, such as the deliberate killing of children.”[17]

            Prime Minister Ardern has also encouraged companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to remove all links and repostings to both the manifesto and the video.[18] Although the companies have worked hard to comply with the request, the tremendous scope and scale of the internet has made this an incredibly difficult task. As Politico journalist Jack Shafer reported:

[I]t took 29 minutes to detect the livestreamed video, which was eight minutes longer than it took police to arrest the gunman. About 1.3m copies of the video were blocked from Facebook but 300,000 copies were published and shared. . . Even though Facebook deleted 1.5 million of the first-person videos inside of 24 hours and Google’s YouTube boasted of ‘unprecedented’ scale and speed in erasing the videos (one per second!) and temporarily disabling search functions, neither service could keep up with the uploaders. Some users subtly altered the videos to slip under automated screening processes. News organizations in possession of the material have also self-censored.[19]

            To many, including the Prime Minister, this is exactly the shooter wanted: an internet audience.[20] In fact, while some members of the public praise the Prime Minister’s approach (and have even started a petition to award her the Nobel peace prize for her efforts),[21] others criticize that the government’s censorship has actually encouraged the attention the government has tried so hard to avoid.[22] The New Zealand government’s actions have been criticized as creating a Streisand effect–“a phenomenon whereby the attempt to suppress something only brings more attention or notoriety to it.”[23] In fact, some critics worry that the censorship of his manifesto could turn him into a martyr-like figure for right-wing extremists.[24]

            Not only could the censorship be creating more of an interest in the manifesto, but the censorship arguably also has little effect on the media.[25] While it is true that news organizations have self-censored publishing the manifesto or video, the same outlets report on the bias-motivated message of the act itself.[26] Jack Shafer of Politico argues that “[t]his let the press have it both ways—to claim an imagined moral victory by not using the video and manifesto directly but by extracting every essential reportorial detail from them.”[27]

Furthermore, particularly for the manifesto, critics argue that censoring the work prevents the public from truly learning about the incident (especially what motivated the shooter) to possibly prevent more attacks in the future.[28] While inspiring similar extremists is always a risk, critics argue that reading the manifesto has the same value as reading Mein Kampf–to understand what motivates biased mass-murders.[29] The New Zealand government responded by noting that Mein Kampf does not present a clear and present danger to the public.[30]

When an act of extreme terror shakes a country and the world to the core, those in power have a responsibility to respond swiftly, efficiently, and to the best of their ability. However, whether or not New Zealand’s censorship strategy was an appropriate reaction to an act of hate or an example of government overreaching as it jumps the gun remains to be seen.

 


[1] See New Zeland Mosque Shooting: What is Known About the Suspect?, BBC News (Mar. 18, 2019), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-47579243.

[2] See Kara Fox, New Zealand Shooting Victims Remembered for the Lives They Lived, CNN (Mar. 18, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/16/asia/new-zealand-mosque-shooting-victims/index.html.

[3] See Alexandra Ma, New Zealand Made it Illegal for Anyone to Download or Share the Christchurch Shooter’s Manifesto, Business Insider (Mar. 25, 2019), https://www.businessinsider.com/new-zealand-bans-christchurch-shooter-manifesto-livestream-2019-3.

[4] See id.

[5] See, e.g., supra note 2.

[6] See Censor Bans ‘Manifesto’ of Christchurch Mosque Shooter, The Guardian (Mar. 25, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/24/censor-bans-manifesto-of-christchurch-mosque-shooter.

[7] See Elliot Hannon, New Zealand Parliament Passes Ban on Semi-Automatic Weapons by 119-1 Vote, Slate (10 Apr. 2019), https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/04/new-zealand-parliament-passes-semi-automatic-weapons-ban-by-119-1-vote.html.

[8] Bill of Rights Act of 1990, s 14 (N.Z.). “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”

[9] Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, s 3(1) (N.Z.). http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1993/0094/latest/whole.html?search=ts_act_classification_resel&p=1#DLM313407.

[10] Supra note 9.

[11] See Sia Aston, Guidance from Chief Censor, NZ Office of Film & Literature Classification (Mar. 20, 2019), https://www.classificationoffice.govt.nz/news/latest-news/christchurch-attacks-press-releases/.

[12] Damien Cave, New Zealand Bans the Christchurch Suspect’s Manifesto, NY Times (Mar. 22, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/22/world/asia/new-zealand-christchurch-shooter-manifesto.html.

[13] Kerri Breen, New Zealand Bans Sharing Manifesto of Alleged Christchurch Mosque Shooter, Global News (Mar. 22, 2019), https://globalnews.ca/news/5087363/new-zealand-manifesto-banned-christchurch/.

[14] See Matt Novak, 18-Year-Old Arrested in New Zealand for Sharing Terrorist’s Facebook Video, Gizmodo (Mar. 19, 2019), https://gizmodo.com/18-year-old-arrested-in-new-zealand-for-sharing-terrori-1833402190.

[15]Supra note 12.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] See id.

[19] See Jack Shafer, Don’t Censor the New Zealand Shooting Videos, Politico (Mar. 20, 2019), https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/03/20/new-zealand-shooting-videos-225822.

[20] See, e.g., supra note 3.

[21] See supra note 6.

[22] See supra note 19.

[23] Words We’re Watching: ‘Streisand Effect’, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/words-were-watching-streisand-effect-barbra (last visited Apr. 12, 2019).

[24] See supra note 3.

[25] See supra note 19.

[26] See id.

[27] Id.

[28] See supra note 6.

[29] See id.

[30] See Sia Aston, The Great Replacement Classification FAQs, NZ Office of Film & Literature Classification, https://www.classificationoffice.govt.nz/news/latest-news/christchurch-attacks-press-releases/ (last visited Apr. 12, 2019).

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