The two-day hui in Christchurch on terrorism and violent extremism has highlighted the challenges that lie ahead for Government, tech companies and New Zealand society alike, writes Marc Daalder
ANALYSIS: Police Commissioner Andrew Coster was surprised by the short, to-the-point question he received from a man in the front row of the audience at Christchurch Town Hall on Wednesday – and the ripple of laughter that accompanied the question at an otherwise-serious two-day hui on countering terrorism.
“Why is it so hard on your website to report a hate crime or hate speech, but very easy to report unsafe driver?” the man had asked.
Coster assured him that the new 105 reporting form would hopefully resolve those issues. But despite the levity, the question and answer epitomised some of the challenges raised at the event, which might have flown under the radar amidst headlines over a dispute on the Israel-Palestine conflict and a spy chief’s warning that a future terror attack was a “realistic possibility”.
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These challenges are more nuanced that the obvious illegality of terrorism. It involves grappling with online content that might not cross the legal threshold but still victimises and traumatises communities. Plus, some of the division and ongoing concern over a perceived lack of government attention on the worries of minorities in New Zealand could pose barriers for the Government’s latest push on social cohesion.
One thing is certainly clear: The revamped police website still doesn’t address the issue of reporting online hate. In order to report an event via the form, you have to put in an address. That’s a bit hard if it involves death threats or racist rhetoric posted to the internet.
Many of these threats are dismissed by police as well. This was highlighted by Anjum Rahman, a spokesperson for the Islamic Women’s Council, during a panel on online extremism. In her presentation, Rahman pointed to pictures of threats against a Hamilton mosque that had been made on Facebook.
“While they say ‘Burn it down,’ they don’t say ‘I will burn it down’ and therefore, I’ve been told, doesn’t come under the definition of a threat,” she said.
Rahman also expressed a broader alienation in attempting to seek support and redress over hateful comments made against the Hamilton mosque that didn’t rise to the level of illegality.
“To this day, I don’t know if the people that did that have been found, contacted, who they are, what they’re doing,” she said. “I know that that person … were openly announcing they were Nazi. Their location said Hamilton. And we don’t know anything.”
Who should hateful comments be reported to?
“I’m still not sure … if this comes under Netsafe or not. Netsafe deals with individual targeted harassment and this is not a threat to an individual.”
The story of the Hamilton mosque is an anecdote, but representative of a broader problem.
When I reported to police online threats to wait outside of media offices and assault journalists in March, I was told “It’s just people giving their opinion”. The man who made those threats later made a YouTube video calling for a race war and the genocide of Māori. That video was deemed objectionable by the Chief Censor and the man has since been arrested and charged with making an objectionable publication.
The Government has acknowledged it still has work to do in this area.
“One of the things that the community has been raising with the police is, you know, even if a criminal threshold isn’t met, what can be done, because often when the community will raise these issues directly with the platforms where those messages are being posted, sometimes nothing will happen,” Jacinda Ardern said in March.
“There has to be a better way to respond to those things that may not reach a criminal threshold – speaking aside from this current issue – but are nonetheless leaving our community feeling very, very vulnerable.”
In addition to clarity over how online hate is dealt with – which could come from the Government’s review of content regulation – and who to report such hate to, efforts to make reporting this content less alienating will be key if the Government is to achieve its goal of greater social cohesion in New Zealand.
Indeed, much of the two-day hui was advertised as a discussion on the root causes of terrorism. How can we ensure that people don’t feel so isolated and excluded that they mobilise to violence in the first place? How can we replace the desire to seek community amongst online radical ideologues with a welcoming and multicultural real-life community?
Sara Salman, a lecturer in criminology at Victoria University of Wellington who researches white supremacy, discussed the motivations behind far-right terror attacks. This included economic anxiety linked to anti-immigration sentiment that “metastasises” into truly radical beliefs.
Despite this and a handful of other illuminating presentations, however, the hui did not delve as deeply into the question of social cohesion and the path to a more inclusive New Zealand as one might have expected. Instead, it understandably continued to grapple with the legacy of March 15. This included the worries over the alienating response to reporting online hate, the sense that the security services still view Muslims as a threat and are not doing everything in their power to prevent far-right terror.
The critical question for the Government will be whether it can do enough to address these ongoing concerns and to help the Muslim community feel safe, so that this same community can participate in the building of a more tolerant New Zealand.