Sunday 20 October 2019

New Zealand sparks censorship row by banning mosque killer's manifesto

Support: A boy holds a placard as he takes part in a vigil in Christchurch to remember the victims of the massacre. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
Support: A boy holds a placard as he takes part in a vigil in Christchurch to remember the victims of the massacre. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Nick Perry in Dunedin

New Zealand has sparked controversy after the chief censor banned the 74-page manifesto written by the man who slaughtered 50 people at two mosques in the city of Christchurch.

The ban means anybody caught with the document on their computer could face up to 10 years in prison, while anyone caught sending it could face 14 years. Some say the ban goes too far and risks lending both the document and the gunman mystique.

At the same time, many local media organisations are debating whether to even name the Australian man charged with murder in the March 15 attacks after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed she would never mention 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant by name.

In some ways, Tarrant's manifesto provides the greatest insight into his character and thinking, with neighbours and those he met in a gym in the sleepy seaside town of Dunedin recalling nothing particularly remarkable about him.

Chief censor David Shanks said Tarrant's manifesto contains justifications for acts of tremendous cruelty such as killing children and encourages acts of terrorism, even outlining specific places to target and methods to carry out attacks.

He said that in banning the document, he and his staff worried about drawing more attention to it. But in the end, he said, they decided to treat it the same way as propaganda from groups like Isil, which is also banned.

Mr Shanks had earlier placed a similar ban on the 17-minute video the killer filmed from a camera mounted on his helmet during the shootings.

But while free speech advocates don't question banning the graphic video, they said banning the manifesto was a step too far.

"People are more confident of each other and their leaders when there is no room left for conspiracy theories, when nothing is hidden," said Stephen Franks, a constitutional lawyer and spokesman for the Free Speech Coalition. "The damage and risks are greater from suppressing these things than they are from trusting people to form their own conclusions and to see evil or madness for what it is."

Mr Franks said he had no interest in reading the manifesto until it was banned. He now was curious because it was "forbidden fruit", he said.

Danish journalist Claus Blok Thomsen, who works for the 'Politiken' newspaper and covered the trial of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, said there were dangers in censoring Tarrant. He said that during the Breivik trial, many media outlets reported only what happened in court without exploring Breivik's far-right ideology.

He said it was an approach favoured by intellectuals and so-called experts, but when he interviewed the families of the victims, he found many of them were angry.

"They said when we start to censor ourselves, we just make him into a martyr," Mr Thomsen said. "We are not able to learn how mad this guy was, what his thinking was, until everything is out in the light."

Irish Independent

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