What freedoms will we give up?

INQUEST: NBR's weekly political wrap looks at legislative changes in the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attacks on March 15, is New Zealand in danger of giving up freedoms in return for greater safety?

Legislation is being rushed through Parliament to ban the ownership of semi-automatic weapons and the parts that can turn guns into semi-automatics. That will be law next week, with the gun lobby accusing the government of running roughshod over the democratic process.

Justice Minister Andrew Little is considering changes to hate speech legislation, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called for more regulation of social media companies and the National Party is urging the government to give the country’s intelligence agencies more powers to spy on Kiwis.

In Inquest this week we look at whether there might be an overreaction that leads to the freedoms most New Zealanders take for granted being curtailed.

Auckland University politics professor Jennifer Curtin does not think so but she says it is entirely appropriate to have a full debate on the regulation of social media and how hate speech should be policed.

Neither does Professor Curtin have much sympathy for the gun lobby’s complaint that the freedoms of gun owners are being trampled over.

She points out that, despite the rush to get new gun laws, gun owners have had the opportunity to make submissions and be heard by the select committee considering the legislation. She says they will also have plenty of time to make submissions when the government introduces its second tranche of reforms to gun laws.

Social media

Meanwhile, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards thinks more regulation is needed to control the way social media allow the livestreaming of violent events and then the repeated sharing of that video content.

Facebook was criticised heavily for not moving fast enough to take down video the terrorist live-streamed as he killed 50 people in the attacks on two Christchurch mosques.

Professor Curtin says when it comes to social media there are two issues to consider.

The first relates to the content social media platforms allow to be played and whether that should be restricted. The second relates to privacy issues over the data these platforms hold on individuals.

She says in Europe and the US there is a move toward more regulation to protect data privacy.

Professor Curtin says when it comes to content online issues over freedom of speech do arise.

“The thing about free speech is that it moves into the grey zone when it’s inciting violence or inciting hatred and so, that’s where we have to take some care and maybe have some further conversations about whether or not regulation, particularly of social media, has gone far enough.”

She says in a liberal democracy people value both freedom and tolerance. There is a responsibility on media to ensure they do not incite hate or violence. In Germany platforms can be fined up to €​​​​​​​50 million for material which incites violence and hate crimes.

But what is hate speech?

The human rights legislation only applies to victims of racial hate speech. Mr Little is looking at whether that be extended to cover religion, gender, sexual orientation or any other difference people exploit to promote hatred or violence towards a particular group.

Professor Curtin says it is very hard to define hate speech.

“What we do know is that we don’t have great data on who are the victims of persecution if you like, of people using language to discriminate against people.”

She says there is a lot more work to do in defining that and it is a good conversation to have.

Government surveillance

While there seems to be a lot of support for tightening gun laws and for regulating social media Professor Curtin is not sure everyone wants – as National does – to give the spy agencies more powers.

She says proposals of this sort need to be treated with a lot of care and should not be rushed. There would need to be discussions about whether the SIS and GCSB would use increased powers and technology to spy on certain groups of people.

The government has announced a royal commission of inquiry and one of its key objectives will be to determine whether the spy agencies and other government agencies could have or should have had information which would have prevented the Christchurch attacks.

Muslim community groups say their warnings to the SIS about rising threats from white supremacists had been ignored.

Professor Curtin agrees no changes should be made to the spy agencies’ powers until that inquiry has reported back.

She says it seems likely the spy agencies do not always look at the people they might need to look at. There have already been examples of private investigators investigating protest groups and Maori on the behalf of government agencies in a way which breached those people’s rights to freedom of association.

Has New Zealand changed since March 15?

Professor Curtin believes it has but not in the way some people might think. She says it has become clear that New Zealanders are not as tolerant as they thought they were.

“Maybe we need to be encouraged to reflect on institutional racism, multi-culturalism and the real meaning of that in practice and recognising that the freedom of religion and discrimination against religious beliefs is up there with discrimination against people on the basis of race.”

Political editor
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