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‘Terrorism is terrorism’ — until it’s not

Expanding anti-terrorism laws to include “promotion” of terrorism is fraught with dangers — especially when some countries define good journalism as terrorism.

While there are concerns about the free speech and censorship implications of the national security reforms proposed by Attorney-General George Brandis — albeit not as serious as some make out — further reforms flagged by Brandis have far greater potential to undermine free speech.

Speaking to the ABC yesterday, Brandis opined that current anti-terrorism laws are too narrow in regard to the offence of promoting terrorism.

You have to identify a particular terrorist act. So one of the reforms that I’m looking at is a broader prohibition against the promotion or encouragement of terrorism … There’s a general law. It’s a very ancient part of the criminal law that makes it a crime to incite violence. If it’s a crime to incite violence, surely it ought to be a crime to incite or promote terrorism.”

As shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus spotted immediately, if it’s already a crime to incite violence, then why the need to add an additional offence? The Commonwealth Criminal Code already makes urging someone to commit an offence — with the intention that an offence actually be committed — a crime punishable by up to 10 years’ jail, depending on the offence.

There’s a threshold issue in all this, which is whether a general promotion of violence should be a criminal offence. A person has already been jailed in Australia for promoting violence: Islamic fundamentalist Belal Khazaal, whose case Chris Berg wrote about two years ago. Khazaal was convicted and jailed under s.101.5 of the Criminal Code, which makes it an offence to collect or make a document that “is connected with preparation for, the engagement of a person in, or assistance in a terrorist act”, for a rather shoddy ebook urging jihad and offering some tips.

So, there’s already a law that relates to making documents associated with terrorism. But Brandis appears to want to go further and ensure anyone supporting terrorism in general can be prosecuted, in some way that current incitement laws don’t cover.

One self-evident problem is that one person’s terrorism is another’s heroic freedom fighting. Australia’s terrorism laws include creating “a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public” in both Australia and overseas. Post 9/11, the West isn’t quite so gung-ho in its attitudes toward the proxies it backs in various conflicts around the world. But the United States, not to mention less savoury states like Saudi Arabia, has been providing weaponry to moderate forces fighting the monstrous regime of President Bashar al Assad in Syria — a conflict where both sides have been guilty of atrocities even before the arrival of the atavistic butchers of ISIS. Australians heading over to fight Assad are deemed to be incipient terrorists even as our imperial overlord ramps up its supply of weapons to opposition groups. Is promoting violence against the Assad regime what Brandis has in mind?

The broader problem, however, is that the War on Terror has been characterised by, inter alia, constant expansion of both the definition of terrorism and the application of anti-terror laws. In Australia, anti-terror laws have been used as a model for laws relating to trade unions and bikie gangs. In the US and the UK, the problem has been one of definitional creep. Protests by pacifists and people complaining about water quality have been labelled “terrorism” in the United States; groups targeted by the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence “fusion centers” include Ron Paul supporters, the Occupy movement, the American Council of Civil Liberties, pro- and anti-abortion activists and gun ownership advocates.

Worst of all, in the UK, in attempting to justify the detention of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, the UK government successfully argued in court that simply publishing documents that might influence a government was “terrorism”, and that the motives of the publisher didn’t matter. “Terrorism is terrorism, whatever the motives,” the police prosecutor argued. The sheer breadth of the UK definition of terrorism is now causing real alarm there.

Is promoting and supporting public interest journalism that embarrasses governments or reveals criminal conduct by government agencies terrorism? Is reporting what Edward Snowden has revealed — revelations that have led Congress to curtail some of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance activities, and prompted the Obama administration to review its mass surveillance programs, claiming it had intended to initiate a debate anyway — terrorism?

Remember, “terrorism is terrorism, whatever the motives”.

Would the widening of current laws favoured by Brandis extend to whatever another Five Eyes country — like the UK — might deem terrorism? Or would it be limited purely to what Australian law deems terrorism? In which case, what specifically is not covered by both the incitement laws and the current, successfully-applied law that makes creating a dodgy ebook urging jihad a crime worth 12 years’ jail? Brandis should give us an example of how exactly the current, hardline laws are somehow too “narrow”.

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  • 1
    drsmithy
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    “You have to identify a particular terrorist act. So one of the reforms that I’m looking at is a broader prohibition against the promotion or encouragement of terrorism … There’s a general law. It’s a very ancient part of the criminal law that makes it a crime to incite violence. If it’s a crime to incite violence, surely it ought to be a crime to incite or promote terrorism.”

    Promoting or inciting racism and discrimination, however, is A-OK.

    Would drowning the Prime Minister in a hessian sack count as terrorism ?

    In most circumstances, the naked hypocrisy of people like Brandis is merely laughable. When they’re running the country, it’s scary.

  • 2
    j.oneill
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    One of the fundamental problems with enforcing so-called terrorism laws is the uncertainty of their application. I have yet to hear Brandis mention prosecuting Australians who go to Israel and commit war crimes there in Israel’s terrorism of Palestine. Nor do we hear anything about prosecuting Americans who have for decades practised terrorism in a huge number of countries, Not to mention the active support for terrorist groups who at least temporarily are on the side of the Americans.

    I suspect the real motive is to (a) further enhance government control of citizens with whose opinions it disagrees; and (b) provide another weapon in the war against the enemy du jour. This government has shown an alarming tendency to bypass democratic procedures and safeguards, and this is just another example.

  • 3
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like this Beetle-nut leaf has been plucked straight from “The Little Dictionary of Big Bush-Cheney Scary Words” - available for a Coalition Shilling at all the Right outlets?
    It’s all in the eye of the beholder of the big stick?

  • 4
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Meagre but accurate article BK but you really ought to replace some of the stock phrases in your F3 function, to wit & to woo - “Saudi Arabia, has been providing weaponry to moderate forces fighting the monstrous regime of President Bashar al Assad in Syria — a conflict where both sides have been guilty of atrocities” - sooo, ‘moderate forces…have been guilty of atrocities’? If that doesn’t disqualify their ‘moderateness’ I can’t imagine what would.
    Odd how the majority of the Syria population continue to prefer the “monstrous” Basher to the maniacs supported funded by, not to mention exported from the unsavoury Saudi fuedal dictatorship.
    Long spoons look like being a boom market.

  • 5
    bushby jane
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Combined with the proposed new laws regarding online misuse, our wonderful Libs are proving to be a lot less than liberal. Until the next contradiction.

  • 6
    Graeski
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Abbott terrifies me, ergo he’s a terrorist. Brandis encourages Abbott, ergo he should be jailed.

  • 7
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    J O’neill: Israeli terror and American bombs and weapons of mass destruction. One thing seems to be in their favour with respect to Australia’s tolerance …they have God and Rupert Murdoch’s press on their side.

  • 8
    Sir Leigh Curmudgeon
    Posted Friday, 1 August 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    My dear Graeski, Abbott terrifies everyone, not because he’s a terrorist but because he’s just bally terrific!

    Good old Georgie B can take a somewhat superior tone sometimes but that’s just the latent school bully coming out. Nothing to get your tiara in a twist about. We’ve all got a bit of the school bully in us. Or had.

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