The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, is proposing to widen Australia's censorship laws. He is seeking a new power to ban books, films and computer games that advocate terrorism. The period for public consultation closed last week and the changes might soon become law.
The proposal comes at a time of front-page newspaper stories and community concern about so-called books of hate and DVDs that promote terrorism. These might encourage people to use violence for political or religious ends, instruct on how to become a suicide bomber or incite hatred against others on account of race or religion.
Many people believe that such books should be banned. Indeed, while freedom of speech is important there are good reasons for limiting community access to this material. We should restrict general access to books, DVDs and games that incite racist and religious violence.
The problem with the Attorney-General's proposal is that the law is already broad enough to cover these situations. The national classification scheme prohibits material if it promotes, incites or instructs in matters of crime or violence. It is illegal under state and territory law for such material to be sold and distributed. In New South Wales a person who sells a banned book or who leaves it in a public place can be jailed for a maximum of two years.
This law has been applied to ban material advocating terrorism. In July 2006 the Office of Film and Literature Classification Review Board banned two books, Defence of the Muslim Lands and Join the Caravan, because they promote and incite crime, namely terrorism. The books encourage suicide bombing and call for Muslims to engage in violence in Bosnia, Afghanistan and elsewhere. However the Attorney-General was unsuccessful in seeking to have other books and one film banned. The film, rather than being banned, was classified PG with a consumer advice of "mild themes".
The classification board is an independent body whose decisions are subject to appeal and judicial review. The board's decisions will sometimes displease whoever is in government, but that is not a justification for changing the system.
Ruddock is seeking to create a new category of prohibited material that advocates terrorism. The devil lies in the detail of the new definition. It includes a ban on material that directly praises doing a terrorist act where there is a risk that such praise might lead a person (regardless of his or her age or any mental impairment) to engage in a terrorist act. This would be an extraordinary extension of the law.
Part of the problem is how this is based on an already wide definition of terrorism. Books such as Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler may be abhorrent, but do we really want to ban them? Is it worth making them the centre of debate and perhaps even more popular?
We even put at risk films or books that praise the actions of Nelson Mandela. Under Australian law Mandela is considered a terrorist. There are no exceptions for acts of violence committed as part of a fight for independence or a liberation struggle against an oppressive regime.
The result is that many publications could be caught in the net that should not be banned.
A book, film or computer game could also be banned for praising a terrorist act where there is merely a risk that this might lead someone with a mental impairment to take up terrorism. Right and wrong under Australian law are usually dependent on the actions of a reasonable person, not of the mentally impaired.
Basing our censorship laws and thus what the general community can read and view on the reaction of someone with a mental illness is unjustifiable. It would permit all sorts of material to be banned that no reasonable person would see as a problem.
It would also put authors, publishers and the classification board in an impossible position. Each would be faced with having to assess the legality of books, films or computer games in light of the possible actions of a person with one or more mental impairments. That the person's response was irrational would be irrelevant.
The Attorney-General should not widen Australia's censorship laws. We should not now extend the law to include a poorly defined and over-wide concept of advocating terrorism.
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