Month: May 2017

“Embarrassing” – New Zealand’s blasphemy law to stay after all

An attempt to repeal the outdated “blasphemy” law in New Zealand has been derailed.

The existence of the laws was apparently only made known to some parliamentary and government officials earlier this month, following the publicity over an investigation into British celebrity Stephen Fry in the Republic of Ireland.

A plan to add the “blasphemy” law to a list of statutes to be repealed was quickly brought forward, but collapsed yesterday when the National Party and the Maori Party together voted it down.

Chris Hipkins, the MP who tabled a Supplementary Order Paper to add New Zealand’s blasphemy law to the Statutes Repeal Bill currently making its way through Parliament, posted on his Facebook profile saying that it was a “sad day for freedom of speech, tolerance, and leadership”, adding: “What moral authority does NZ have condemning other countries for draconian blasphemy laws when we have one of our own that we refuse to repeal?”

In a statement the Humanist Society of New Zealand (HSNZ) called the law and its retention “embarassing”. HSNZ president, Sara Passmore, said:

“This is a clear vote against human rights in New Zealand. It shows we have an illusion of a secular government, with politicians choosing personal beliefs over freedom and tolerance.

“By refusing to remove the blasphemy law from our Crimes Act, the Government is saying we are not free to criticise and challenge all ideas. This decision was backwards, and not in line with international trends. We think people, not ideas, should be protected”.

The Humanist Society of New Zealand, which represents the 41% of people in the country who are not religious, says that even blasphemy laws such as New Zealand’s that are not used can cause harm, because they legitimise human rights abuses in countries that use their blasphemy laws to persecute citizens.

Stephen Fry blasphemy probe in Ireland is dropped – may lead to abolition of New Zealand’s law!

That was quick!

Even as the world responded to news that Stephen Fry was being investigated for “blasphemy” in Ireland yesterday, the Gardaí (Irish police) decided to drop the probe because they couldn’t find a large enough group of people outraged by the comments.

Meanwhile, the coverage apparently alerted senior officials in New Zealand to the existence of their own “blasphemy” law, and the prime minister then pledged to abolish it!

A bit of Fry and sorry

Stephen Fry with comedy partner Hugh Laurie in sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie

Introduced by then-Justice Minister Dermot Ahern as late as 2009, against the tide of abolition in developed countries, the Irish ‘blasphemy’ law criminalizes publication and other expressions that are “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”.

The “blasphemy” probe was initiated in response to a single police complaint about a TV interview in 2015, in which Fry said that God was “stupid”.

A source told the Irish Independent yesterday that the complainant against Fry was “a witness and not an injured party”, and so with no substantial number of people offended the investigation would be dropped.

Of course, this leaves open the possibility of a future case in which the complainant does claim to be offended themselves, or where there is more evidence of public “outrage”. But for now, it looks like neither Stephen Fry nor the public service broadcaster RTÉ will be made to pay up (the maximum fine for “blasphemy” in Ireland is €25,000).

New Zealand gets sight of the discord

On the other side of the world, the prime minister of New Zealand Bill English, as well as the Anglican Archbishop Philip Richardson, both apparently discovered for the first time that the country still had a “blasphemy” law, and English said he would work to repeal it.

New Zealand’s Religious Libel law, section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961, criminalizes “blasphemous libel” with a maximum sentence of one year. There is no record of a successful prosecution under this law, but it remains on the books and humanists in New Zealand have been actively seeking to repeal the law.

Prime Minister English is quoted by as saying on Monday that he did not previously know the blasphemy laws existed, but “we could get rid of them. … Laws that overreach on addressing robust speech are not a good idea.”

Another politician, David Seymour of the ACT party said the unenforced law was “arbitrary” and: “That creates a situation where some people in authority can choose to enforce the law at their discretion.” He floated the introduction of a private members’ bill as a possible route to repealing the law.

Archbishop Richardson, too, said he saw no point to the law. “My view is, God’s bigger than needing to be defended by the Crimes Act.”

Citing the Fry case, the Humanist Society of New Zealand (a partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign) today renewed its calls to repeal country’s “outdated blasphemy law.” Sara Passmore, president of the Humanist Society, said:

“New Zealand has to abolish its blasphemy law before it is used to censor, suppress, and silence public debate. We want to increase social cohesion and understanding, and by protecting one set of ideas from critique we are closing the door on free speech, free inquiry and public debate.

“This investigation into a TV interview with Stephen Fry is evidence that blasphemy laws restrict free speech and have no place in our society. Countries around the world are repealing blasphemy laws and it is time New Zealand followed the international trend. And now that the investigation has been dropped because the Irish police have failed to find ‘enough outraged people’ it is clear that any blasphemy law has no place in modern society.”

Outgoing governor of Jakarta sentenced to two years for “blasphemy”

The outgoing governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, usually known as ‘Ahok’, has been sentenced to two years in jail for criminal “blasphemy”.

Protesters against Ahok’s supposed ‘blasphemy’ called for his imprisonment or in some cases even his death

The governor of the capital city of Indonesia, world’s most populous Muslim country, had previously been highly popular. But he was due to stand down later in 2017 after having lost the governorship election last month, following a vicious campaign against him for alleged “blasphemy”.

Various Islamist groups had called for Ahok’s imprisonment , or even his execution, following a blasphemy accusation last year. Ahok, who is from a Chinese Christian background,  had mentioned during a campaign speech that political opponents were citing the Qur’an against him, a claim which, in an edited YouTube video which went viral, was made to look as though he was criticizing the Qur’an itself.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (a partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign) comments:

“This sentence is the wail of a warning siren for a country in which intolerant Islamism is rising.

“We have seen the same pattern in states as far apart as Bangladesh and Mauritania, Pakistan and the Maldives in recent years. The pattern is that hardline Islamist groups, and violent extremists, are making more and more intolerant demands, against the rights and liberties of others. They are creating and using high profile “blasphemy” incidents to whip up religious hysteria and further an intolerant agenda. And instead of being slapped down by the authorities under constitutional principles, they are instead being flattered and facilitated and given what they want.

“We call on the courts to overturn the sentence on appeal, acquit Ahok and ensure his safety upon release. We call on the government to reconsider and abolish the country’s ‘blasphemy’ law. More than that, we call on all states suffering intolerant and militant Islamism not to make concessions, not to give in to intolerant Islamism, because every concession only creates more demands. Whereas upholding human rights and liberty is right, and will always be better for the nation in the long run.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide explains:

“As a Chinese Christian, Ahok is Indonesia’s most prominent ethnic minority politician and was the first non-Muslim governor of Jakarta for over 50 years. His campaign for re-election was overshadowed by the blasphemy allegation against him and he lost the vote last month.

“On 27 September 2016, Ahok reportedly quoted a Qur’anic verse on the campaign trail while addressing concerns that his political opponents may use the verse to discourage people from voting for him as a non-Muslim. He was then falsely accused of criticising the verse itself. The court case against the governor was filed by several conservative Islamic groups after his statement went viral via a doctored YouTube video.

“On 13 November 2016, Ahok was formally charged with blasphemy and his trial began on 13 December 2016. An estimated 500,000 Muslims turned up to a number of rallies in November and December 2016 to protest against his supposed blasphemy.”

The Guardian newspaper said:

“On Tuesday, hundreds of members of hardline Islamist groups gathered outside the south Jakarta courtroom amid a heavy security presence, calling for Ahok to be given the maximum penalty.

“As news of the sentence emerged members of the crowd shouted “God is greatest”.

“The government has been criticised for not doing enough to protect religious minorities, but President Joko Widodo, an ally of Ahok’s, has urged restraint over the trial and called for all sides to respect the legal process.

“Thousands of police have been deployed in the capital to prevent clashes between Ahok supporters and opponents. “Both groups will have the opportunity to demonstrate, but we are taking steps to prevent clashes,” said the national police spokesman, Setyo Wasisto.”

Sentencing Ahok, the presiding head judge said: “As part of a religious society, the defendant should be careful to not use words with negative connotations regarding the symbols of religions, including the religion of the defendant himself.” Another judge explained that: “the defendant didn’t feel guilt, the defendant’s act has caused anxiety and hurt Muslims.” While Indonesia has a tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism under the state philosophy of Pancasila, it seems that this is now increasingly being interpreted less as ‘unity in diversity’ and more as ‘unity enforced by conformity’.

This is another example where political interests and the interests of conservative Islamist groups combine with a bad law and so render a grave injustice. We can hope that the appeals court might overturn the conviction. And more widely, we can hope that the Indonesian government will come to its senses, see the terrible future that the “blasphemy” mobs would bring about, and work to quickly review and abolish the “blasphemy” law.

Stephen Fry named in criminal blasphemy investigation in Ireland

A police investigation has been announced into an interview segment on RTÉ, the public service broadcaster of the Republic of Ireland, which featured the British comedian and actor Stephen Fry.

Ireland passed a new “blasphemy” law in 2009, making it the only developed country to have introduced “blasphemy” as a criminal offence in the twenty-first century.

During the 2015 interview on The Meaning of Life, hosted by Gay Byrne, Fry was asked what he would say to God. He replied: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. … It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? … Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. … The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

The 2017 investigation by the Gardaí (Irish police) was prompted by a complaint from a member of the public following the broadcast of The Meaning of Life in February 2015 according to the Irish Independent. Gardaí in Donnybrook only began a full investigation two years later, after having come back to the original complainant. The anonymous complainant told the Irish Independent that he wasn’t personally offended by the interview, but thought he was doing his “civic duty” by reporting an act of “criminal blasphemy”.

Atheist Ireland (a national partner organization in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign) said:

Atheist Ireland

“Atheist Ireland welcomes the police investigation into Stephen Fry for blasphemy.

“It highlights a law that is silly, silencing, and dangerous.

“It is a silly law because it suggests that the creator of the universe needs the Oireachtas to protect its feelings.

“It is a silencing law because many Irish media outlets are self-censoring themselves to avoid the possibility of being prosecuted.

“And it is a dangerous law because the Islamic States at the United Nations use western blasphemy laws to justify their own blasphemy laws, for which they execute people.

“Indeed Pakistan, on behalf of the Islamic States, has asked the UN to use wording from the Irish blasphemy law to ban blasphemy internationally.”

The organization noted that others who republished the interview and other similar “blasphemous” content could also conceivably be prosecuted. They therefore republished 25 blasphemous quotes in “solidarity” with Mr Fry, adding, “If we are prosecuted, we will challenge the constitutionality of the blasphemy law. If we are not prosecuted, it will again highlight the absurdity of this law, which should be repealed immediately. We again call on the Irish Government to honour its commitment to hold a referendum to remove the ban on blasphemy from our Constitution.”

President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (a transnational partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign) wrote in the UK’s Independent online:

IHEU“Debate and discussion over powerful and emotive topics like religion and belief are, by their nature, endlessly provocative. They are also vital, and when so many countries still try to use the force of law to shut down these discussions, we all risk intellectual impoverishment. …

“Islamic states often justify their blasphemy laws by pointing to the existence of those in Europe, calling Europeans hypocrites for advocating for abolition whilst still having their own. Indeed, since 2013, EU foreign policy has been that blasphemy laws should be abolished, in spite of the fact that several member states have their own.

“The main international effort to repeal blasphemy laws has been through the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, spearheaded by the International Humanist and Ethical Union and European Humanist Federation, of which the British Humanist Association is a member. Over its two years the campaign has seen successful repeals in Norway, Iceland, Malta and France. The current Irish Government is committed to holding a referendum on doing the same. Now it is surely time to fulfil that promise.”

A spokesman for Mr Fry said there was “nothing for us to say while this is under investigation.”

The investigation could conceivably result in a prosecution. It would be the first such prosecution under the 2009 law.