A critique of the initiative by NZ Prime Minister Ardern to prevent the spread of terrorism via the internet.
The Christchurch Call to Action Summit was initiated by Jacinda Ardern in the aftermath of the March 15th, 2019, Christchurch mosque attacks. It was held in Paris, in May 2019. Among many things it aimed “to bring together countries and tech companies in an attempt to bring an end the ability to use social media to organise and promote terrorism and violent extremism”. (Core group of world leaders to attend Jacinda Ardern-led Paris summit, NZ Herald, May 16th, 2019.) As of September 2019 about forty-eight countries had signed up to it. So, it wasn’t just countries who signed on. Amazon, Dailymotion, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Qwant, Twitter and YouTube also did.
Two years later, Ardern hailed the Christchurch Call as a great success but admitted in a Radio NZ interview on April 14th, this year, that it would not be possible to end extremist content or violence on the Internet. Despite Ardern’s belief that her initiative has been a resounding success the verdict as to its necessity or use has been mixed. The French government has praised it but various Internet watchdogs have pointed out that footage of the mosque shootings that was live streamed are still available online.
Civil libertarian groups have raised questions about how terms like “terrorism” and “violent extremism” have been defined by the Christchurch Call. In particular, EFF made the important point that two signatories to the Call – Jordan and Spain – used anti-terror measures to silence speech on certain subjects. (The Christchurch Call: The Good, the Not-So-Good and the Ugly, eff.com, May 16, 2019.)
There is a tendency by governments to be selective in their definitions of terrorism and violent extremism. A case in point was the decision of Trump to label Antifa a terrorist organisation. The only reason he labelled them terrorists was because of protests triggered by high profile killings of unarmed black men including George Floyd. (“Antifa: Trump says group will be labelled ‘terrorist organisation'”, BBC News, May 31st, 2020.) It has not been lost on many commentators that QAnon, Proud Boys and other far Right groups who have been linked to acts of violence and even murder (including the recent storming of the U.S Capitol building) have never been defined as terrorist organisations. This hypocrisy demonstrates the anarchist case that the state is never neutral.
Even if governments could come up with a clear-cut definition of what they think a terrorist is, the intelligence agencies still have to find them. The 20th Century was full of secret police organisations whose names are routinely invoked to scare the public. By far, the most well-known was the Gestapo of Nazi Germany. This organisation terrorised Europe but, even at its peak, it never had more than 100,000 personnel. The reason why they were so successful was because of the willingness of people to inform upon each other. In fact, that very willingness to inform resulted in so much information that had to be sorted that the Gestapo had to beg people to stop informing on each other unless it was about a genuine threat to the regime! Thus, having a huge amount of data about people doesn’t necessarily mean it can be used effectively or that it’s useful to the people gathering it.
This situation of intelligence agencies not being able to use the information gathered on far-Right extremists was raised during the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch shootings. It was admitted that the agencies not only didn’t share information but the Royal Commission also “describes a national security system where the standards were often unclear, weak or not applied”.
It went on to state:
The commission found the police “were not well placed to understand the [far-right] threat and how to identify it”.
At least four weaknesses stood out that persisted till 2019, and are even today being caught up on:
● a limited capacity of the investigations team
● a degraded intelligence function
● no assessments of the far-right or strategic assessments of domestic extremism
● no counter-terrorism strategy
“By 2015, New Zealand Police’s intelligence function had degraded, limiting what it could contribute to understanding the domestic terrorism environment,” the report said.
This was despite the police holding information on the far-right.
In 2013-14, police and the SIS had contributed high-quality assessments on the extremists, to the DPMC.
Late 2014 and early 2015 saw a controversial security focus thrown on Islamic State, “foreign fighters” and “jihadi brides”‘ by then Prime Minister John Key. [https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/299191/no-apology-from-govt-over-‘jihadi-brides’-claims]
The rise of ISIS was “a game-changer for New Zealand”, Sir John said in late 2014, as he sought to gain support for a bill to clamp down on “foreign fighters”.
He spoke of the security services having 30 to 40 people under round-the-clock surveillance.
Yet the Royal Commission report shows that at this same time, the police counter-terrorism unit was struggling to do surveillance.
(“Intelligence agencies’ failures highlighted but no accountability sought”, Radio NZ, 1/12/20.)
In a roundabout way the intelligence agencies have admitted that they couldn’t prevent a mass shooting in most cases even if the intelligence agencies had the personnel and resources to monitor every potential lone wolf killer and had the structures in place so the information gathered on them could be used effectively. Lone wolf killers don’t tend to reveal their plans until the day they actually carry out their attacks. By the time these manifestos are published and everyone has been alerted it’s too late. This raises a question: What is the point of having intelligence agencies if they can’t “protect” society (the supposed rationale for their existence, after all) against a genuine threat, let alone a bogeyman “threat” like Greenpeace activists? The answer is: there isn’t one.
It’s bad enough the Christchurch Call doesn’t adequately define terrorism, let alone have the ability (or resolve) to implement measures to combat genuine threats like far-Right lone wolf killers. The situation isn’t helped when it is being used as the pretext to pass so-called “hate speech” laws which are just plain absurd – and dangerous.
In Aotearoa hate speech laws are now being moved over from the Human Rights Commission to the Crimes Act. That is a dangerous path to tread. In the article “Up to three years in jail for hate speech under reforms” that was published on 16/4/21, on the newsroom.co,nz website it stated:
“The first proposal clarifies the wording of prohibited behaviour to involve “the incitement of disharmony, based on an intent to stir up, maintain or normalise hatred, through threatening, abusive or insulting communications. This should include calls for violence against groups”.”
That could be used to silence groups who advocate class warfare. Yet, what concerns me even more is this:
“The reforms seek to change [seldom used hate speech laws] by making more types of discrimination subject to the law, including hatred against religious belief, political belief and disability.”
This is effectively telling us that opposing Nazis (because that is advocating hatred against a political belief) and calling Destiny Church a bunch of bigoted thugs (because that is advocating hatred against religious belief) will potentially be made illegal. I’m sure readers will be able to think of other examples of how these changes can be used and abused.
Using the Call to censor people in the name of combating hate, terrorism and ‘violent extremism’ brings to mind a quote from author Philip Pullman (who wrote the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy) thats worth remembering:
“It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought, or read.”
For all the grandiose posturing of the Christchurch Call it’s nothing more than a move for state and corporate censorship in the name of protecting their own interests. The Christchurch Call uses vague definitions of terrorism, violent extremism and hate speech that can, and will, be used against any group the government and corporations such as the tech giants, don’t like.
To me, freedom of expression is something that Anarchists and our allies must defend. Without it, the arts and culture cannot flourish. Without it, there can be no genuine grassroots democracy or robust discussions that such democracy needs to function effectively. Without it, we cannot expose injustices such as the treatment of indigenous peoples and the working classes at the hands of both corporations and states. The Christchurch Call is an attack on freedom of expression and it must be called out as such.