Banning of manifesto raises free speech debate in New Zealand
DUNEDIN, New Zealand — New Zealanders are debating the limits of free speech after their chief censor banned the 74-page manifesto written and released by the man accused of slaughtering 50 people at two mosques in the city of Christchurch.
The ban, issued Saturday, 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 organizations are debating whether to even name the Australian man charged with murder in the March 15 attacks, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed she would never mention him by name.
In some ways, Tarrant's manifesto provides the greatest insight into his character and thinking, with neighbors 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 like 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 they needed to treat it the same way as propaganda from groups like the Islamic State, which they have also banned.
Shanks had earlier placed a similar ban on the 17-minute livestream video the killer filmed from a camera mounted on his helmet during the shootings. He said researchers and journalists could apply for exemptions from both bans.
But while free speech advocates haven't questioned banning the graphic video, they said banning the manifesto is 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."
Franks said he had no interest in reading the manifesto until it was banned. He now is curious because it is "forbidden fruit," he said, and he worries others may feel the same way. He said the ban makes no sense when New Zealanders remain free to read Adolf Hitler's autobiography, "Mein Kampf."
Ardern told Parliament last week that she wouldn't give the gunman anything he wanted.
"He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety," she said. "And that is why you will never hear me mention his name."
She said people should instead remember the names of the victims.
Some media organizations appear to be taking up her call. News website Stuff on Saturday published an 1,800-word profile on Tarrant without once naming him.
"Our view at the moment is that we're dialing back on naming him, unless it's pertinent or important," said Mark Stevens, the editorial director at Stuff.
The New Zealand Herald also published a profile on Tarrant with an accompanying editorial that mentions Ardern's stance. The editorial says, "Our piece keeps the mention of his name to a minimum."