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Bill C-51: Is Questioning Militarism “Terrorist Propaganda”?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Glenn Greenwald: Journalist or "Terrorist Propagandist"?
Glenn Greenwald: Journalist or "Terrorist Propagandist"?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has put forward legislation (Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act) that makes it an offence to produce and disseminate “terrorist propaganda.”

People defending the bill point out that Canada already outlaws hate speech and suggest that this is just an extension of that principle. After all, Stephen Harper claims that the terrorists are motivated by hatred of our free society, so terrorist propaganda must be all about the spewing of hate, right?

But that is not how “terrorist propaganda” is defined at all. The bill defines “terrorist propaganda” as “any writing, sign, visible representation or audio recording that advocates or promotes the commission of terrorism offences in general… or counsels the commission of a terrorism offence.”

This definition begs the question, what are “terrorism offences”?

There are a lot of terrorism offences in the criminal code. They were created by another so-called Anti-Terrorism Act (Bill C-36) that was passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. They are defined pretty broadly in a way that could potentially include anything, inside or outside Canada, from a bomb plot to an illegal strike.*

So, by criminalizing “terrorist propaganda,” the government is making it a crime to “advocate or promote” a whole gamut of activity. The government is threatening to ban any offending “writing, sign, visible representation or audio recording” and to sentence the people disseminating such material to up to five years in prison.

Just as telling is what is excluded from the definition of terrorism offences. It is okay to bomb, kill and maim people and to put people’s safety in jeopardy, as long as such acts are done by governments that Canada gets along with.**

So, under the new legislation, you will not be producing “terrorist propaganda” if you “advocate or promote” the bombing of Gaza by our good friends in the Israeli Defense Force. The hundreds of civilians killed will not be considered the victims of “terrorism offenses.” You are also free to produce materials supporting deadly US drone strikes in Muslim-majority countries around the world.

But if you “advocate or promote” pretty much any retaliation to such military force, you are in danger of being charged with advocating terrorism. And what does it mean to “advocate or promote” such acts? If you look at “root causes” of terrorism, try to help people understand what kind of rationale motivates a suicide bomber to think he is doing a noble act, are you promoting or advocating terrorism? If you suggest that we might be contributing to jihadists’ causes by bombing their countries, are you producing terrorist propaganda?

Back in October, prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote an article that caused much hand-wringing from law-and-order types. In the wake of the murder of a Canadian soldier by Martin Couture-Rouleau, Greenwald waxed ironically about Canada’s “shock” at the attack after 13 years of actively participating in the invasion of Afghanistan and partnering with the United States in “War on Terror abuses.” He even questioned whether the act was “terrorism” at all since the attacker seemed to be careful to avoid civilian casualties. Greenwald claimed that he did not support Couture-Rouleau’s actions. Nevertheless, many of Greenwald’s critics hold that, by explaining how Canada’s questionable participation in military campaigns will likely serve to motivate such bloody retaliation, Greenwald is effectively promoting terrorism.

I suspect that authorities would not want to accuse an internationally acclaimed journalist like Greenwald of producing terrorist propaganda, but what if the same views were expressed by a lowly blogger? What if the blogger in question were Arab or Mulsim? An arrest and trial of such a “terrorism propagandist” could help motivate the right-wing power base that brought Stephen Harper to power. And it could instill a heavy dose of fear in anybody considering expressing doubts about the so-called War on Terror.

It appears that questioning militarism could very well fall under the government’s proposed definition of “terrorist propaganda.” To “protect our freedoms” do we really need to add such thought crime to the criminal code?

* One of the more contentious terrorism offences includes “an act or omission, in or outside Canada,” motivated by “political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause… with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act, whether the public or the person, government or organization is inside or outside Canada…” Such an act or omission meets the definition of a terrorist offence when it puts health or safety in jeopardy, when it causes damage to public or private property if “causing such damage is likely to result” in such jeopardy or when it “causes serious interference with or serious disruption of an essential service, facility or system, whether public or private, other than as a result of advocacy, protest, dissent or stoppage of work” unless such interference or disruption does not put health or safety in jeopardy.

** Terrorism offenses do not include “an act or omission that is committed during an armed conflict and that, at the time and in the place of its commission, is in accordance with customary international law or conventional international law applicable to the conflict, or the activities undertaken by military forces of a state in the exercise of their official duties, to the extent that those activities are governed by other rules of international law.”

David Bernans is a Québec-based writer and translator. He is the author of Collateral Murder. Follow him on twitter @dbernans.

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