Paris attacks bolster free speech calls in Australia

13th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

The government faced calls Tuesday to bolster free speech amid concern that French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo could not be published in Australia under existing race discrimination laws.

Canberra last year abandoned plans to repeal a section of the Racial Discrimination Act that makes it illegal to "offend, insult or humiliate another" because of their race after concerns from ethnic communities.

But after world leaders joined millions of people marching in France this week in support of peace and freedom of expression, some officials urged the government to think again.

The calls come after two Islamist gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo's Paris office on January 7 and massacred 12 people, saying they were taking revenge for previous publications of Prophet Mohammed cartoons -- considered deeply offensive to many Muslims.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson said despite the cartoons being embraced across the world as a symbol of Western liberties, they would not survive the censor in Australia.

"Around the world, if you're going to say you believe in free speech and that people should have the freedom to offend or insult somebody, then the solution cannot be censorship," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"That is what we have in Australia today. We have a law that makes it unlawful to offend or insult somebody.

"So people are either being hypocrites when they say 'Je suis Charlie' and saying they defend these people's right to free speech, or they actually believe in free speech and recognise that laws that make it unlawful to insult or offend people are censorious and would see that Charlie Hebdo would be censored in Australia," he said.

In the wake of the hostage crisis and massacre, "Je Suis Charlie" (I Am Charlie) has become a rallying cry, chanted in solidarity with the victims and tweeted millions of times as a hashtag.

Several senators backed calls for renewed debate on free speech, although Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane disputed claims that Charlie Hebdo could not be published in Australia.

"People can make complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act only about things which concern the attributes of race, colour, ethnicity and national origin," he said.

"If a complaint is made about offence that is taken on the basis of religion, this is something that does not come under the Racial Discrimination Act."

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss ruled out any move to change the law.

"We should be bold and speak out about the things we want to speak out about but we can do that without changing section 18C (of the Act)," he told reporters.

"The government's come to a decision in relation to that issue and we're not proposing to change."

Before abandoning the repeal plans, Attorney-General George Brandis said he wanted Australia to remain a fair, free and tolerant society where racism had no place, but also defended the right of Australians to "be bigots".

Charlie Hebdo plans to put a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed on its next cover, printing three million copies -- not the usual 60,000 -- when it reappears on newsstands this week.


© 2015 AFP

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