Paris attacks rekindle Australia free speech debate

Melbourne demonstration, 8 January 2015 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Australians have been demonstrating their solidarity with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo's offices

The attack on satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo has reignited the debate over Australia's race-hate law, which prohibit certain forms of speech.

Several politicians - including Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi - say the law must be repealed to preserve the right to freedom of expression.

But others have insisted that the law's restrictions on causing insult, offence and humiliation are necessary.

The government abandoned its plans to repeal the law last year.

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it illegal to "offend, insult or humiliate" a person or a group of people on the basis of race, colour or ethnic origin.

Before he was elected, Prime Minister Tony Abbott had campaigned to change the legislation, describing it in its current form as a "hurt feelings test".

But the plan was dropped last year amid political opposition and concerns about antagonising minority groups.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Security has been tightened in France after last week's attacks

Several conservative politicians have renewed calls for the law to be repealed, following last week's gun attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Twelve people were killed in the attack, including the magazine's editor and prominent cartoonists. The gunmen were heard shouting that they had "avenged the Prophet Muhammad" - an apparent reference to the magazine's publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet.

The attack was followed by a manhunt for the gunmen and their accomplices, culminating in two hostage situations. A total of 17 people were killed in three days of violence.

On Sunday, some three million people marched in France in what was described as a demonstration of unity against the attacks.

'Emphatically clear'

Mr Bernardi, a Liberal senator who has long campaigned to repeal the laws, told the Guardian Australia that the debate needed to be revived.

He said Australians would not be "bullied or bludgeoned or terrorised" into maintaining silence over controversial issues - including topics that could potentially offend Muslims.

His demand was echoed by the former New South Wales Solicitor General, Michael Sexton, who wrote in The Australian newspaper that those who wanted to defend free speech after the Paris attacks should also recognise the right of publications such as Charlie Hebdo to cause insult or offence.

However, many leaders - including some from the governing Liberal party - have dismissed the call.

Racial Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the issues around the law had already been debated last year.

He said "the overwhelming majority of the Australian public have made emphatically clear that the current law should be retained".

'Morally repugnant'

The Australian government had committed to repealing section 18C of the Act after a 2011 court case that ruled against conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, for his comments about light-skinned Aborigines.

Mr Bolt had defended a newspaper column in which he suggested that light-skinned people of Aboriginal descent had "chosen" to be Aboriginal for personal gain, ignoring their other cultural heritages.

Last year, however, the government faced such strong opposition from ethnic groups and others that it dropped plans to change the Act.

Community groups warned Mr Abbott against pursuing what they described as "morally repugnant" changes to racial discrimination laws.

In a joint statement issued in March last year, representatives of Australia's indigenous community, as well as its Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities, said the proposed amendments would "license the public humiliation of people because of their race".

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