Christchurch terror attack: The 41 terror publications you didn't know the Censor banned

The Chief Censor's call to ban the alleged Christchurch gunman's manifesto last week sparked cries of censorship.

The Free Speech Coalition, which includes such influential voices such as former Reserve Bank Don Brash, history professor Paul Moon and Taxpayers' Union founder Jordan Williams, called it a "completely improper use of censorship powers", and said it would challenge the decision in court.

But Newshub can reveal the white nationalist's manifesto is far from the first terrorist-penned publication to have been deemed too much for Kiwi eyes.

Since the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act of 1993, 42 terrorist writings have been classified as objectionable. The Christchurch suspect's manifesto, named The Great Replacement after a conspiracy theory that claims white European Christians are being slowly replaced by African and Middle-Eastern Muslims through unchecked immigration, was the 42nd.

The first 41 were magazines published by Islamic terror organisations Islamic State and al-Qaeda, under the titles Dabiq, Inspire and Rumiyah. Dabiq was published by Islamic State between 2014 and 2016, in Arabic, English, German and French. It was replaced by Rumiyah after Islamic State lost the Syrian town of Dabiq to Turkish forces. Al-Qaeda's English-language Inspire has been in print since 2010.

The justification given by the Censor was that each banned issue "promotes and encourages terrorism to a degree that makes its availability likely to be injurious to the public good".

A typical ruling from the Chief Censor.
A typical ruling from the Chief Censor on Islamic terror publications. Photo credit: Office of Film and Literature Classification

Newshub asked the Free Speech Coalition if they'd like the Islamic terror publications also made available to the New Zealand public to read.

"The sharing of ideas should not be illegal, even if they are abhorrent and disgusting ideas - as I'm sure those are, and what the Christchurch terrorist wrote in his manifesto," said spokesperson David Cumin.

"That's the underlying principle, and we shouldn't be sacrificing our freedoms for some illusion of limited safety."

David Cumin on the Free Speech Coalition.
David Cumin on the Free Speech Coalition. Photo credit: The AM Show

According to the New Yorker, one issue of Rumiyah contained advice on the best types of knives to use to kill "infidels", and how best to wield them. Another reportedly advised readers which vehicles were best for ramming into crowds of people, like what happened in the French town of Nice in 2016. And one issue of Dabiq contained an article justifying Islamic State's use of sex slaves and beheadings, CNN reported.

The Chief Censor says works like these are banned, while political treatises like Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf aren't, because they "directly exhort people to kill and commit acts of mass terrorism, and tells them how to do that".

The Great Replacement, said David Shanks, "promotes, encourages and justifies acts of murder and terrorist violence against identified groups of people".

"It identifies specific places for potential attack in New Zealand, and refers to the means by which other types of attack may be carried out.  It contains justifications for acts of tremendous cruelty, such as the deliberate killing of children."

Chief Censor David Shanks.
Chief Censor David Shanks. Photo credit: The AM Show

Dr Cumin stopped short of explicitly saying the Islamic terror publications shouldn't be banned, saying it's "hard to comment" because it's illegal to read them, so he hasn't. He did read the Christchurch gunman's manifesto before it was banned, however.

"It doesn't have explicit details on how to kill people or use guns, et cetera. I'll admit there's a fine line, but I don't think it crosses it - and I think we should be erring on the side of sunlight and better ideas, rather than trying to drive things underground and into corners where we can't see them."

If a terrorist publication did contain "an immediate call to imminent action that's specific and dangerous", Dr Cumin said it "should be completely and utterly banned".

But restricting access to some terrorist material runs the risk of making it "more alluring" to the very types of people who shouldn't be reading it, he said.

"To have it out, open, being able to be challenged, being able to monitor the people who are spreading it, is far more important than the illusion of safety by driving it underground and out of sight."

He cited a 2014 report by London-based counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, which found most "radicalised individuals come into contact with extremist ideology through offline socialisation prior to being indoctrinated online" and "censorship in general was not only ineffective and costly but also potentially counter-productive".

When to trust the Chief Censor?

Council for Civil Liberties chair Thomas Beagle agrees with the Free Speech Coalition in principle, but trusts the Chief Censor to have made the right call in banning all 42 publications.

"I would definitely object if it was purely political content - arguing about how society should be shaped and what it should be doing, even if some of those things were a bit objectionable," he told Newshub.

"If they do have information about how to commit violence, encouraging people to commit terror attacks and so on, you've got to [perhaps accept] the Chief Censor's decision they could be injurious to society."

Dr Cumin didn't object to the Chief Censor's banning of the gunman's livestream video, comparing it to child porn and 'snuff' videos.

Censorship in the internet age

The Chief Censor's office told Newshub it doesn't look for terrorist publications to ban, and usually relies on agencies like the police, Customs or the Department of Internal Affairs to bring offending material to its attention.

Only occasionally does it act proactively, like it did with the alleged Christchurch gunman's material.

While on paper banning material in 2019 is as easy as it was 20 years ago, enforcement isn't. The internet makes it a breeze to access anything you want, and there are tools like VPNs and Tor which can make it near-impossible for law enforcement agencies to track what you're downloading.  

While some internet service providers temporarily blocked their customers accessing websites known to host extremist content, outright banning them is difficult. The Chief Censor's Office told Newshub while it could deem a website objectionable "in theory", every time it's updated the classification "arguably no longer applies" because it would be a new publication.

Then there's Facebook, which hosted a livestream of the Christchurch massacre for 17 minutes. It wasn't until 12 minutes after it ended that anyone reported it.

Last week Facebook said it will consider blocking users with previous violations of its 'community standards' from hosting livestreams, and that white separatist and nationalist content would be banned.

"White nationalism and separatism cannot be meaningfully separated from white supremacy and organised hate groups," the company said.

Beagle said Facebook's a private company that can do whatever it likes, and backs the ban on white nationalist content. But it makes him uneasy, partly because with more than 2 billion users, it has a dominance unmatched by other social networks.

"In a democratic society it's not acceptable to say that some people aren't people. That would seem to fit in with what Facebook are banning," said Beagle.

"On the other hand, I really don't want Facebook to be the arbiter of what we can and cannot see because they've got particularly American values, values set by their shareholders, and I don't trust them to make good judgements on some of those issues of freedom of expression, civil liberties and democracy."

Cumin agreed that while Facebook is "free to run their business how they see fit", there appeared to be a "double standard" in how it applies its rules.

He also said there have been suggestions of "Government coercion". Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was "pleased" to see Facebook crack down on white nationalist content, but said there was "more work to do, while preserving a free, open and secure internet".

"As soon as our Government starts to censor ideas and decide what we are and aren't allowed to access in terms of information and thoughts and free expression then we have a real problem," said Cumin.

Mark Zuckerberg.
Mark Zuckerberg. Photo credit: Getty

But on Sunday, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said every social media network has different rules around free speech, and perhaps it was time for "a more active role for governments and regulators".

"Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree," he wrote in the Washington Post. "I've come to believe that we shouldn't make so many important decisions about speech on our own."