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Fear drives a bid for censorship

By Tony Coady - posted Monday, 25 June 2007

All governments have a tendency to control and censor, and the climate of “the war on terror” strengthens this tendency in alarming ways. A case in point is a new government discussion paper, Material that Advocates Terrorist Acts, designed to placate alleged public disquiet about publications that might help turn people into terrorists.

The paper is part of a move by the Commonwealth, States and Territories to consider amending the National Classification Scheme (i.e. “censorship regulations”) to further restrict the liberty to read or view. The Victorian State Attorney-General has sent the discussion paper to Victorian universities for comment. He no doubt realises that universities may want to seek exemption of some sort.

The document uses a problematic definition of terrorism and its recommendations resort to dangerously vague categories such as “tone” and “indirect”. Accepting its clumsy proposals would represent yet more government erosion of civil rights, and would have a serious effect upon freedom of academic inquiry. As someone who researches terrorism in his academic work and who receives ARC support on the topic, I find the proposal thoroughly disturbing.


Its definition of a terrorist act (taken from the Commonwealth Criminal Code) casts as terrorist all forms of violence by non-government individuals or groups directed against a government for political, religious or ideological reasons. But the proposal also makes it impossible by definition for the armed forces of any “country on the international stage” to commit terrorist acts as long as they are acting “in accordance with what they perceive to be their national interests and international law”. (It is natural to read the reference to international law as also governed by “perceive”.)

Taken together, these make terrorists of the Jewish armed resisters to Nazi troops in the Warsaw ghetto or French Resisters attacking German military facilities, and rule out as terrorist any acts committed by Russian troops in Chechnya or Serbian troops in Kosovo.

It also means that the American revolution of independence consisted wholly of terrorist acts. The problem is that terrorism is really a tactic of attacking innocent people or non-combatants, not the use of any sort of non-state violence. Justified revolutions and armed struggle against oppressive governments are not necessarily terrorist, and there must be room to accuse states, as well as sub-state agents, of using terrorist tactics when they attack innocent people.

This muddle has consequences for the censorship proposal since it would have the effect, for example, of banning publications by anyone who praises any aspect of the armed Palestinian struggle against Israel or efforts at self-defence by the Tamil Tigers or any armed resistance by Chechen rebels or by Burmese dissidents defending their homes from rapacious government forces. Such a ban would be wrong in principle, for these struggles need not involve attacks upon the innocent, though they sometimes do.

Even a ban on reading material that praises terrorist acts (properly understood) is likely to deter serious attempts to discover the nature of terrorism, its complex motivations, and its delusions. Such a ban is a direct threat to the academic project of investigating the social world, and is likely to leave public understanding of terrorism impoverished. Academic investigators, and indeed the educated public, have an interest in hearing and reading even the diatribes of Osama bin Laden.

As if this is not enough, the proposal lurches into the murky waters of including within the meaning of “advocate” various direct or indirect deeds.


It wants to ban material that “directly or indirectly counsels or urges doing a terrorist act or directly or indirectly provides instruction on doing a terrorist act”. This can include the “tone” or “context” of a speech that somehow helps “indirectly advocate” a terrorist act.

It is quite unclear what indirect counselling, urging or instructing can amount to here, though presumably it can be unintentional. Even if it were clear, it remains puzzling why such powerful state machinery should be brought to bear to restrict freedom of information on such grounds.

Fortunately, only direct praising is included in the proposal under “advocate” since the authors have baulked at proscribing “indirect praise”, whatever that might be. The document wants to ban praise of 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”.

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First published in The Age on June 1, 2007.

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About the Author

Professor Tony Coady is Professorial Fellow in Applied Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. He has published extensively on definitional and ethical issues to do with terrorism. His book, Morality and Political Violence will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

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