Civil libertarians, media groups and Muslims have voiced alarm
at the Federal Government's proposed introduction of tough new laws
prohibiting the "incitement of violence", saying they were a curb
on free speech.
The Prime Minister, John Howard, announced the controversial
changes yesterday, arguing that a new legal regime was required in
the age of terrorism.
The proposed laws would forbid comments "inciting violence"
against groups. As well, statements that might encourage violence
against Australian troops overseas would be outlawed, as well as
those that provided support to "Australia's enemies".
Waleed Kadous, the convener of the Australian Muslim Civil
Rights Advocacy Network, said he was "deeply concerned about how
this will impact on quite legitimate free speech".
"What about someone who says that the people of Iraq have the
right to resist the occupation?" he said. "That would contravene
these laws. You may not personally agree with that but it is
something you should be able to say."
The president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Cameron
Murphy, said the proposed laws were hugely problematic. "It's very
difficult to define when someone is inciting violence," he said.
"It's an absolute nightmare."
Legislation is yet to be drafted but Mr Howard had a go at
drawing the distinction between legitimate political debate and
People could criticise him and his Government for troop
deployments but would have to refrain from "actually encouraging
people to attack them", he said. "It's not designed in any way to
hamper or hinder free speech and political comment."
But Mr Murphy pointed to two distinct problems: whether someone
can be charged with inciting violence if no violent act follows,
and whether the new penalties would apply if someone did act
violently based on someone's statements, but the person who made
them did not intend to provoke the response.
Asked about this issue yesterday - in the context of a
journalist's report inadvertently sparking a terrorist act - Mr
Howard declined to respond, saying he would not give a legal
Mr Murphy used the example of a fundamentalist Christian priest
who expressed the commonly held interpretation of the Bible that
homosexuality was evil.
"What happens if someone hears that and then attacks a
homosexual? Should that priest be charged with the offence of
inciting violence?" he said. "That's what the Government is
suggesting. It's a dangerous way to deal with this issue, and the
He said it was more effective to debate extremists publicly and
challenge their views. "Laws don't change people's extremist views.
It just sends them underground, or it creates martyrs."
Both Mr Murphy and Mr Kadous said existing laws against the
incitement of violence, treason and racial vilification worked well
and did not need to be strengthened further.
The director of corporate affairs for John Fairfax (publisher of
the Herald), Bruce Wolpe, pointed to another possible impact
of the new laws on freedom of speech.
The new "notice to produce" powers for the Australian Federal
Police could require journalists to hand over their notes and
recordings, including those made during interviews of confidential
Mr Wolpe said the Government had not consulted with publishers
and said it was alarming there was no sunset clause attached to the
But Neil James of the Australia Defence Association supported
the beefing up of sedition laws, acknowledging they would "go
beyond what would be traditionally regarded as matters of normal
Mr James said authorities had been powerless to prosecute
Australian activists who openly supported communist North Vietnam
in the 1960s and 1970s.
Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September 2005