Is Australia Pointing a Sword at Religious Freedom With ‘Disinformation’ Laws

CommentaryIn Australia, announced government laws to police “disinformation” on the internet are so expansive that they threaten religious freedom. Regulatory powers that are proposed to be given to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) give the power to compel the removal of “harmful” speech from the internet. The extension of such powers is a real concern in an Australian culture where government bodies are increasingly captured by atheistic, secularist ideologies and where traditional Christian teachings (particularly about life, marriage, identity, and sexuality) are vociferously denounced as harmful. If ACMA is granted these new powers, it will present yet another threat to the ability of Christians to speak the truth in the public square and could result in: Pro-life material and promotions are being removed from Facebook because of the alleged emotional harm and emotional anguish it might cause women; The censure of Christian Instagram pages that promote traditional marriage between a man and a woman; or The forced closure of Christian Twitter feeds that engage on gender-fluid ideology and present an orthodox Christian perspective on identity. (StockSnap/Pixabay) In a report announced in March this year by the communications minister, ACMA recommended that: ACMA receives information-gathering powers to oversee digital platforms; ACMA receives powers to register industry codes, enforce industry code compliance and make standards relating to the activities of digital platform corporations; and The Government should establish a “Misinformation and Disinformation Action Group.” Of most concern is the suggestion that ACMA is given reserve powers to enforce the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation. This is because the Code would allow ACMA to remove information that it determines to be “harmful.” This is a serious threat to religious freedom and activity. Ostensibly, these new measures are aimed at combatting disinformation and misinformation. But looking at the scope of powers that these laws will grant to ACMA, it’s clear that the remit is much broader. With the proposed new powers ACMA can decide what information, opinions, and beliefs are officially acceptable according to government policy. Further, it’s not just that ACMA can require the removal of untrue information; it can suppress information that it deems “harmful” to the public good (regardless of whether that information is true or not). ACMA will be commissioned to protect “public goods” such as the protection of citizens’ health, the protection of marginalised or vulnerable groups, the (ubiquitous and largely undefinable) public safety or the environment. To give such wide censorious powers to a bureaucratic body does not bode well for religious freedom. In many cases, these bodies are stacked with members of the privileged administrative class holding a uniform socio-political ideology. They are so isolated from the actual public, making them the least qualified to determine what the public interest is and what internet engagement is harmful. Handing ACMA these kinds of powers will severely undermine the fundamental rights of Australians as set out in Articles 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Though the Code pays lip service to the importance of free speech and upholding ICCPR rights, its wording takes an axe to the roots of the tree of religious freedom by setting a much lower bar for interference with free speech rights than international law. Christians and other religious Australians already face considerable challenges when engaging about their faith in the public square. The Human Rights Law Alliance has assisted many Christians who have been attacked for their religious speech online. The new proposed ACMA powers will simply fashion another sword pointed at it. A 3D-printed Twitter logo in a picture illustration taken on April 28, 2022. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters) Examples of existing suppression of freedom of religious freedom include: Dr Jereth Kok, who was suspended from practicing medicine by the Medical Board for his social media posts that were critical of gender-fluid ideology. New “disinformation” powers would allow ACMA to silence Christian doctors like Kok by requiring social media providers to remove posts critical of gender-fluid ideology or flagging them as “false” information. Lyle Shelton is being sued under Queensland vilification law for his comments opposing Drag Queen Story Time events in Brisbane public libraries. Lyle already faces a significant challenge in answering vilification claims that are being used to silence his religious speech. The new powers would allow ACMA to de-platform and silence religious commentators like Lyle under the pretence that they would be protecting “vulnerable groups.” Katrina Tait is a Catholic mother who was threatened by an activist with a homosexual vilificati

Is Australia Pointing a Sword at Religious Freedom With ‘Disinformation’ Laws

Commentary

In Australia, announced government laws to police “disinformation” on the internet are so expansive that they threaten religious freedom.

Regulatory powers that are proposed to be given to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) give the power to compel the removal of “harmful” speech from the internet.

The extension of such powers is a real concern in an Australian culture where government bodies are increasingly captured by atheistic, secularist ideologies and where traditional Christian teachings (particularly about life, marriage, identity, and sexuality) are vociferously denounced as harmful.

If ACMA is granted these new powers, it will present yet another threat to the ability of Christians to speak the truth in the public square and could result in:

  1. Pro-life material and promotions are being removed from Facebook because of the alleged emotional harm and emotional anguish it might cause women;
  2. The censure of Christian Instagram pages that promote traditional marriage between a man and a woman; or
  3. The forced closure of Christian Twitter feeds that engage on gender-fluid ideology and present an orthodox Christian perspective on identity.
Epoch Times Photo
(StockSnap/Pixabay)

In a report announced in March this year by the communications minister, ACMA recommended that:

  1. ACMA receives information-gathering powers to oversee digital platforms;
  2. ACMA receives powers to register industry codes, enforce industry code compliance and make standards relating to the activities of digital platform corporations; and
  3. The Government should establish a “Misinformation and Disinformation Action Group.”

Of most concern is the suggestion that ACMA is given reserve powers to enforce the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation. This is because the Code would allow ACMA to remove information that it determines to be “harmful.” This is a serious threat to religious freedom and activity.

Ostensibly, these new measures are aimed at combatting disinformation and misinformation. But looking at the scope of powers that these laws will grant to ACMA, it’s clear that the remit is much broader.

With the proposed new powers ACMA can decide what information, opinions, and beliefs are officially acceptable according to government policy.

Further, it’s not just that ACMA can require the removal of untrue information; it can suppress information that it deems “harmful” to the public good (regardless of whether that information is true or not).

ACMA will be commissioned to protect “public goods” such as the protection of citizens’ health, the protection of marginalised or vulnerable groups, the (ubiquitous and largely undefinable) public safety or the environment.

To give such wide censorious powers to a bureaucratic body does not bode well for religious freedom.

In many cases, these bodies are stacked with members of the privileged administrative class holding a uniform socio-political ideology. They are so isolated from the actual public, making them the least qualified to determine what the public interest is and what internet engagement is harmful.

Handing ACMA these kinds of powers will severely undermine the fundamental rights of Australians as set out in Articles 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Though the Code pays lip service to the importance of free speech and upholding ICCPR rights, its wording takes an axe to the roots of the tree of religious freedom by setting a much lower bar for interference with free speech rights than international law.

Christians and other religious Australians already face considerable challenges when engaging about their faith in the public square. The Human Rights Law Alliance has assisted many Christians who have been attacked for their religious speech online. The new proposed ACMA powers will simply fashion another sword pointed at it.

Twitter logo
A 3D-printed Twitter logo in a picture illustration taken on April 28, 2022. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Examples of existing suppression of freedom of religious freedom include:

Dr Jereth Kok, who was suspended from practicing medicine by the Medical Board for his social media posts that were critical of gender-fluid ideology.

New “disinformation” powers would allow ACMA to silence Christian doctors like Kok by requiring social media providers to remove posts critical of gender-fluid ideology or flagging them as “false” information.

Lyle Shelton is being sued under Queensland vilification law for his comments opposing Drag Queen Story Time events in Brisbane public libraries. Lyle already faces a significant challenge in answering vilification claims that are being used to silence his religious speech. The new powers would allow ACMA to de-platform and silence religious commentators like Lyle under the pretence that they would be protecting “vulnerable groups.”

Katrina Tait is a Catholic mother who was threatened by an activist with a homosexual vilification claim for saying drag queens are bad role models for children. With new “disinformation” powers, ACMA could simply force social media providers to remove religious, social media posts like Katrina’s, excluding Christians from the public square.

Every Australian should be concerned about the effect that these new powers will have on religious freedom and free speech. Eradicating and suppressing religious speech risks removing truth from the public square and degrading Australian democracy.

A healthy, functioning democracy requires a true contest of ideas, not a curated one. Falsehood can only be defeated by truth. If Australians are to continue speaking truth to power, they cannot surrender their ability to discern what is true for themselves.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Steenhof

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John Steenhof is the principal lawyer at the Human Rights Law Alliance, a not-for-profit law firm based in Canberra, Australia that specialises in religious liberty and freedom of speech, thought, and conscience.

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