Kia ora: It is with dismal feelings that I sit down. The news these days is despairing. Another thinker and writer from the Indian Rationalist movement M M Kalburgi was assassinated on the morning of 30 August. A renowned antiquities scholar, Khaled al-Asaad 82 has been beheaded, his body mutilated and hung from a column in the historic ruins of Palmyra by Islamic State militants. The militants have since destroyed the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, a UNESCO Heritage Site. Palmyra’s art and architecture from the 1st and 2nd Centuries combine Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. There is a vast wave of refugees fleeing Syria and the ISIS terror to find peace in Europe. It was moving to hear a young 18 year old youth tell an interviewer that he had pushed his grandmother in a wheelchair from Afghanistan. He said he would carry his grandmother in his arms when he could no longer push her. Nepal, still dealing with the aftermath of the April 7.9 earthquake, is also experiencing political turmoil. Development gains after the earthquake with the help of international aid and communities helping each other, seem about to stall with this political turmoil. A new Constitution is under discussion and is causing dissent among some Nepali communities in the Terai to the South West of Kathmandu. A Police Post has been attacked with 8 people including a young baby brutally murdered. Very recent news is that Police have shot and killed at least five demonstrators at a rally against the proposed Constitution. Strikes in the troubled Terai region are beginning to cause a shortage of cooking fuel in the Kathmandu valley. Kathmandu has also had days of strikes with daily life coming to a standstill.

  •     Monthly meeting: Monday 7 September 6pm
  •     Meet up with Secular Education Network
  •   A team of Secular Education Network members are taking the Ministry of Education to court over Bible in Schools. They want the law strengthened to cover teaching about all faiths, and non-religious beliefs, not just Christianity. The protest team, led by David Hines and Tanya Jacob has been in mediation with the Ministry of Education for nearly six months, but have now moved to stage two of their campaign aimed at getting the law changed. The group is also asking for a ruling against section 78 of the Education Act 1964 which permits Bible in Schools classes, and religious observances in school assemblies. There is also a need for the secularity law (section 77) to be strengthened. This is an opportunity to meet up with SEN Wellington members and share our concerns.

@ Blondini’s Jazz Lounge & Café,

On the first floor of the Embassy Theatre 10 Kent Tce, Wellington

Please note different venue

All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend.

  •   2015 Happiness Photography competition: please have your photos in by October 15: for details see July/August Newsletter : http://humanist.org.nz/newsletter/july-august-2015
  •   Sir Lloyd Geering Public lectures: 8, 10, 15 & 17 September St Andrews on the Tce, Wellington 12.15pm: Reformation, Resurrection, Eternity & Destiny. These were the subjects which sparked the Heresy Trial of 1969. Lloyd Geering will read the articles which caused the controversy, to be followed by an interview with Noel Cheer. For further information  see: http://satrs.org.nz/events/
  •    Can we help the Society of Humanism Nepal (SOCH Nepal)? The members of SOCH Nepal know that scientific and rational thinking are essential from childhood. They have realised their dream of opening a Humanist School ‘to help children think freely without any preconceived notions.’ SOCH Nepal are very grateful for the support of the school and 7 students by HSNZ members Graham Hill, Rochelle Forrester, Paul & Judy Woolman, Lorraine Butler, Marta & Hugh McKenzie, Karl Matthys, Iain & Gaylene Middleton, and the Humanist Council. After the earthquake all schools are facing building difficulties and most parents do not want students using upper level classrooms. This restricts classes to the ground floor of school buildings. SOCH Nepal has asked us if we could help with some funds to build some single level prefabricated classrooms on their school site. A letter from Kuldip Aryal, Vice- Principal was in our last newsletter: http://humanist.org.nz/newsletter/july-august-2015. To date, there has been little response. Nepal is in increasing political turmoil. Can we not help with SOCH Nepal’s dream of secular education for their young people. Rochelle Forrester has offered to contribute $500 towards a total of $6,000. If you would like to join us in helping SOCH Nepal please make your donation to a dedicated Nepal Account BNZ 02-0392-0094973-001 and email payment details to [email protected]  Donations will receive a receipt for tax rebate purposes. More information is on our website www.humanist.org.nz
  •      

Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015

The Humanist Society of NZ supports the intention of the new Harmful Digital Communications Act but is very concerned that the Act discriminates against non-religious people in breach of the Human Rights Act and has the potential to be used, misused, or abused, as a new blasphemy law. While we support the intention of the new Act, it is the potential for misuse that concerns us. On Thursday 6 August the Humanist Society of NZ released the following press statement:

‘Shameful new blasphemy law introduced by the back door’

“An embarrassing step backwards and a severe blow to free speech” is what the New Zealand Humanist Society today called our newest de facto blasphemy law, which received Royal assent on 2 July.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 has come under international scrutiny from human rights organisations for allowing individuals to bring proceedings if they allege that a digital communication has denigrated their religion, causing them to “suffer serious emotional distress”. And the punishments are some of the most severe in the world – if charged, individuals could face up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000.

The President of the New Zealand Humanist Society, Mark Honeychurch, said “This legislation not only flies in the face of human rights, but the introduction of yet another law that gives special privileges to religions is unfair, unpopular and unrepresentative of our society, where over 40% of New Zealanders identify as not religious, making this our country’s largest single belief group.”

Honeychurch said “It is ironic that on the same day that the parliament in Iceland voted unanimously to abolish their blasphemy law, in New Zealand we adopt a new one, taking a great step backwards from being a progressive society and breaching both International Law and our obligations under international agreements.”

“We want to increase social cohesion and understanding, and by awarding privileges and protecting groups from critique we are closing the door on free speech, free inquiry and public debate. New Zealand has to abolish its blasphemy laws before they are used to censor, suppress, and silence public debate.”

Responses after this press release.

National Radio, during the Afternoon Panel with Jim Mora, briefly mentioned the press release with some words of support. We were reported in the Herald. Sara Passmore did an excellent interview on Huffington Post at 3am NZ time:

  • http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/isis-japan-russia-world-brief-august-12/55c41a4e02a7603c310001a3  (9:20)

We have been reported on a reasonable number of Web sites, including Catholic News.

We have been reported on a number of Blogs

Of particular interest is Amy Adams’s response and Steven Price’s response in NZ Law Society’s News.

Recall that our Society considers that the problem is with the wording of the new law. While the Act was well intended, poor wording has resulted in the law going well beyond its original intention. Those who support the Act see how it achieves its objectives, but they often fail to see the loopholes in the law that allow it to be misused, or abused.

Amy Adams’s response appears in the rewritten article that is now available online from NZ Herald.

Justice Minister Amy Adams seems to have missed the point when she said the society’s interpretation of the law was unfounded. Ms Adams said it would take a lot for someone to be charged under the act.

“Not only must the perpetrator be responsible for posting the communication, they must intend to harm another person and that harm must actually occur. The offence is targeted at the very worst online behaviours, and will not censor, suppress or silence public debate. Its enactment was recommended by the Law Commission who considered this matter thoroughly.”

Ms Adams said that a breach of communication principles does not automatically give rise to civil law remedies under the act. “So while a communication may ‘denigrate an individual by reason of his her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability’, it must also be likely to cause serious emotional distress before the approved agency will investigate.

Our response is that the problem is primarily with section 22 of the Act which creates a new offence of “Causing harm by posting a digital communication”. This offence stands independently of the new Agency the Act creates. Harm is defined in the Act as causing “serious emotional distress”. We know that a lot of people are easily distressed when their beliefs are questioned and some may well suffer, or claim to suffer, serious emotional distress. It might be argued that anyone who questions religion must have intend to cause distress as it is well known that there are people who might be distressed. Section 22 of the new Act does not require that the victim be specifically targeted to create an offence. Nor does the Act require that the approved agency must investigate before a complaint ends up in court. Hence, a person may complain to the police and even relatively minor cases could potentially be prosecuted in court.

There is nothing in the Act to say that only the very worst online behaviours will go before the courts.

There is no evidence in the Law Commission’s “fast tracked” report that they considered the inclusion of religion at all. They just took it from YouTube’s terms of use. They did however recommend the inclusion of “Ethical Belief” alongside religion. The deletion of “ethical belief” before the Bill reached parliament caused a breach of the Human Rights Act and means that this Act does not follow the Law Commissions recommendation. Because of this deletion, the Act does not protect non-religious people from being abused or having their ethical beliefs questioned.

In the Law Society News https://www.lawsociety.org.nz/news-and-communications/latest-news/news/cyber-bullying-legislation-not-blasphemy-law  Steven Price, a Wellington barrister specialising in media law says “Decrying new legislation intended to address cyber bullying by labelling it “blasphemy law” is nonsense. He says that the society’s press release has missed the point of the new legislation. Or in his words “This is nonsense, as anybody who takes the time to read the new Act can tell.” Steve Price continues: “This law is designed to fill a gap in the law and provide for an effective means of getting a takedown order when someone posts some revenge porn or a video of a child being beaten up at school. It is not a recipe for stifling criticism of religion.”

Mr Price says the Humanist Society, like others, has mixed up the new offence – deliberately causing serious emotional distress via digital communication – with the new civil remedies provision, and mistakenly asserted that the ‘blasphemy’ provision was part of an offence carrying a maximum individual penalty of two years’ imprisonment or a $50,000 fine.

“They are separate. There is no offence of online blasphemy, there is no $50,000 fine for blaspheming, and there is no realistic prospect of the Act being used against anyone who criticises religion,” says Mr Price.” The offence provision requires a digital attack on a targeted person that is intended to cause that person serious emotional distress, and does so, in circumstances where an ordinary reasonable person would suffer that distress. The statute requires any judge to consider the context of the attack and act consistently with rights of freedom of speech.”

With due respect, we are well aware of the intent of the Act, but even a well intended Act has the potential to be misused, or abused. We consider that the problem is with the wording. When Steven refers to “the blasphemy provision” he seems to be agreeing that the law has a blasphemy provision. Section 6 says that the courts must take account of the communication principles in section 6 where religion is included under principle 10. Nowhere else does the Act define what might cause harm! Section 22 says nothing about a communication having to be “targeted” at the particular person who perceived that they suffered serious emotional distress because of it, and it might include anything on a website. This new law is reminiscent of the days of Patricia Bartlett who would read books or attended shows that she believed were offensive so that she could claim that she was offended, so that she could lay a complaint.

We know that even the most reasonable discussion of religion will cause some people to be offended or distressed, and that religious belief is a form of mass hysteria where many if not all ordinary reasonable people in the same position will all be collectively offended and distressed together, so the ordinary reasonable person test is difficult to apply. If the courts were to say that one member of a religious group was not an ordinary reasonable person it may be equivalent to saying that most members of that group are not ordinary reasonable people.

Regardless of who may be right here, we have succeeded in getting some attention on the issue of blasphemy law. Steven Price adds: “New Zealand does have a blasphemy law. It is section 123 of the Crimes Act, which is almost never used. There is only one reported case. It is basically defunct. But it should be repealed, I think.”

We are pleased to note that Steven Price agrees with us on the repealing of Section 123.

We should perhaps pay more attention to Ursula Cheer, Professor of Law, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, who commented on the Harmful Digital Communications Bill before it became law. Her report includes:

“Height of threshold liability: The criminal offence does set the threshold liability levels high, as they should be, but there will be a risk that children may be unnecessarily criminalised, and indeed, so will adults who have just been stupid and thoughtless. Whether or not prosecution follows is a matter of police discretion, and we have no way of monitoring how that discretion will be used (although bad cases will be very obvious, but by then, it is too late for the person who has been prosecuted). Police will have to be very well-trained and sensitive.”

“Many of the communication principles may encourage frivolous or vexatious complaints and the Bill contains provisions to allow the Agency or a District court to weed these out and the publication has to have caused harm which is serious enough. However, some principles are problematic because they require very difficult judgments to be made before the Agency can decide if a principle has even been breached. Eg: Principle 3: A digital communication should not be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual. Suppose a Muslim complains about cartoons of the Prophet? Does this mean the Agency has to put itself in the shoes of a reasonable Muslim, or a reasonable but culturally aware non-Muslim? Principle 4: A digital communication should not be indecent or obscene. What is one person’s obscenity is another’s work of art. Principle 7: A digital communication should not contain a matter that is published in breach of confidence. Sometimes it is a good idea for confidential information to be published – the law of breach of confidence protects this with a specified public interest defence. There is no such defence in the bill, although freedom of expression has to be taken into account along with other matters when breach is considered by the Agency. Principle 10: A digital communication should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. What is denigration?”

As she points out, we just might not get to hear about some of the cases that the Police put before the courts. Prosecuting people for blasphemy like offences under section 22 may be an example of this.

To read more about Blasphemy Law in New Zealand and the new Act visit: http://blasphemy.nz/