Probing censorship, clamped on Christchurch fallout

Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Mar 22,2019 | Updated: 23:17, Mar 21,2019


A photo taken on March 19 shows a ‘Hello Brother’ message left in a tree outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. ‘Hello brother’, the warm-hearted words an elderly Muslim reportedly used to greet a white supremacist gunman, has become Christchurch’s answer to his volley of hate. Mohemmed Daoud Nabi, a 71-year-old from war-torn Afghanistan, was buried on March 21. But his supposed final words echo across this broken New Zealand city. — Agence France-Presse/William West

REGARDLESS of the sources of violence, or the politics of casualties, or the targeted locations, or the freedom enjoyed by citens, government responses have mostly remained lacklustre, when faced with terrorism. There is an eerie silence, followed by a virtual clampdown of news.
This grand tradition goes back hundreds of years, from crackdown, imposed by King James I, on Catholics after the Gunpowder Plot… through perhaps, to one despot’s charter, the Patriot Act that is, passed within six weeks of 9/11. Just in 2018, the famous was heavily targeted in the wake of the ‘mega bomber’ fake bombings.
The pattern has been an established one: the state will always — always — use a crisis, real or invented, to enhance its political muscle. Most of the time, this is done at the cost of individual liberties.
The Christchurch mosque shootings are proving no exception to this rule. The New Zealand police are currently threatening people with 10 years in prison, for sharing the live-streamed footage, and other punishment, just for owning a copy of the recording.
The video footage of the alleged killer Brenton Tarrant’s shooting spree, at a Christchurch mosque on Friday, which left 50 worshippers dead, was pulled from Facebook immediately after the massacre. With the footage proliferating on several hosting platforms afterwards, the Kiwi authorities have already charged an 18-year-old man for sharing the video as well as for posting other ‘objectionable’ comments days before the shooting.
The teenager now is faced with the prospects of 10 years in prison under New Zealand’s ‘objectionable and restricted material’ laws. The police have, meanwhile, issued an overt threat to anyone else who may be looking for the banned video.
This crackdown is, simply put, weird. We cannot charge people for owning a copy of a video that was live-streamed over the internet to millions of people. And, yes, we certainly cannot make it illegal to even watch the video as a people must strongly resist the idea that being ‘objectionable’ could ever be considered a crime. That is really, insane.
In the year 2014, the London metropolitan police suggested the same thing of the ISIS video where James Foley, the American journalist and video reporter, who covered the Syrian war, is apparently beheaded. That had already been dismissed as ridiculous by a lawyer.
The interesting question, therefore, arises: why are some violent videos deemed ‘criminal’ to even watch while others are not? Is it just control for control’s sake? Or something much more sinister?
By contrast, in the United States, not a shooting goes by that does not result in an outraged chorus of people railing against the second amendment, demanding their government to take the dramatic steps for removing civilian ownership of guns.
For everyone’s information, this is somewhat quieter under Trump because not even the liberal establishment can seriously insist that perhaps Trump is a fascist, on the one hand, but, then, he insists that he desires to take away civilian guns, on the other hand. These powerful men endeavour to do their best though.
New Zealand lawmakers are already ‘engaged’ in the fine process of ‘tightening’ their gun ownership laws.
However, New Zealand opinion makers seem to be in a rush to go further even than that, blocking sites and services that have literally no connection to the video, they were just alternatives.
The portal 8chan, from where the alleged gunman made his announcement, had been active for quite some time but another portal 4chan, now under focus, was never involved. Both have been banned in Australia and New Zealand. Alternative video-hosting sites Liveleak and BitChute have both been blocked despite the fact that neither had hosted the ‘objectionable’ video.
LiveLeak even released a statement saying that they had refused to host it. Dissenters, Gab’s discussion platform, was additionally blocked. They have no connection to the arrested man or the crime itself.
Even ZeroHedge are apparently blocked. Should we not ask what their crime was? Just posting excerpts from the shooter’s ‘manifesto’.
Of course, many publications had posted some small sections of that document. None of the mainstream outlets have been blocked. Facebook live-streamed the video; Facebook is not blocked. These ‘crackdowns’ on the internet have never hurt the internet giants; these are directed solely at the fringe.
This mirrors the ‘Magabomber’ synagogue shooting case of 2019 exactly, where the alleged bomber had a Twitter account and the shooter a Gab account, but only the gab was shutdown and blocked.
We do not know all the facts of the terrorist attack — whether it really was a lone lunatic, or another example of an organisation-backed terror -– there is no way of knowing exactly what happened yet. Whatever the case proves to be, there is absolutely no denying that the New Zealand government has already used it as an excuse to overreach and shut down dissent and free speech on the internet.
Let us consider the scenario. This practice will most likely spread. The parliament and the congress and all the others will come together to demand ‘action’ from internet giants and Google will further fix its algorithm to push mainstream outlets to the front and sideline the alternative. Facebook and Twitter will increasingly shadow-ban or quarantine pages — putting up bulkheads to prevent information flowing to wrong places.
Hate speech will at most become a ‘crime’, punishable by being denied access to the internet, or fined huge amounts of money… the exact legal definition of this hate speech will be fuzzy and vague.
Shifting to meet government needs, a time will come when columns like this one commenting on an increasingly authoritarian attitude of western governments will be deemed unacceptable and removed for a crime of stoking dissent, or perhaps, promoting conspiracy theories.
Increasing mass awareness and encouraging protest are the only recourse left for us to stop that from happening. The threat to our liberties must be taken much more seriously.

Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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