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Blasphemy still offence after failed repeal attempt

24 May 2017 - By Angharad O'Flynn

New Zealand still has a law against blasphemy after a motion in Parliament to repeal section 123 of the Crimes Act was lost on 23 May.

Labour MP Chris Hipkins' Supplementary Order Paper 315 was tabled during the committee stages of the Statutes Repeal Bill. A vote on the motion was lost by 60 votes to 59, with National and the Māori Party voting against.

New Zealand therefore remains one of the few western countries where you could be imprisoned for blasphemy (Canada, Denmark, Germany and Greece are the others according to Blasphemy.NZ).

The discovery that New Zealand still had a law against blasphemy was welcome click fodder for media companies operating in New Zealand earlier this month.

The excitement began with the news that Stephen Fry was going to be prosecuted for blasphemy in Ireland.

The actor, and possibly one of England’s most adored national treasures, made the following remarks as part of an answer about his thoughts on God:

“Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish. We have to spend our lives on our knees thanking him. What kind of god would do that?”

Not long after the investigation became public, Irish police dismissed it because not enough people could be found who were outraged over the anti-God remarks - including the unnamed complainant who stated “I had not been personally offended…I was doing my civic duty reporting a crime.”

In the wake of all this, it was brought to light that New Zealand still has a blasphemy law in place in the Crimes Act which carries a prison sentence if you’re successfully prosecuted. Ireland’s punishment is a fine of NZ$40,000, which is a hit to the pocket, but it’s not a one-year jail sentence. In the Freedom of Thought 2014 report, New Zealand has a rating of "severe discrimination" because we could lock people up for blasphemy.

So, could someone here have initiated a prosecution against Stephen Fry if he had said what he said on New Zealand television?

“Yes. But only with the consent of the Attorney-General which, almost certainly, would not be given,” says Steven Price, Adjunct Lecturer at Victoria University’s School of Law.

“The offence is ill-defined and might include “language calculated to shock and insult the feelings of the community towards matters that are religious and sacred” or to “insult, offend or vilify” God or Christianity."

“To the extent that the section is aimed at protecting the community from civil strife that might arise as a result of some blasphemous comment judged to have ‘passed the bounds of propriety and reached the region of contemptuousness and insult’, I imagine the courts would regard it as a justified limitation on the right to freedom of expression in section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Actm”  says AUT Law School Professor Warren Brookbanks.

The offence is a very subjective experience and our law places an emphasis on the language used when committing blasphemy, stating "It is not an offence against this section to express in good faith and in decent language, or to attempt to establish by arguments used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, any opinion whatever on any religious subject."

So, would Mr Fry’s comments be considered ‘indecent’ language in our Courts?

“I very much doubt it,”  says Steven Price.  

“I’m not aware that ‘decent language’ has been defined in this context," says Professor Brookbanks. "But, as a general rule, it would mean language that any right-thinking member of the community would regard as decent.”  

So, it seems blasphemy has a fuzzy area where comments that may not offend one person, may offend another.

But meanwhile, in Indonesia...

While New Zealand and other first world countries may pass-off blasphemy laws as redundant, and almost laughable, on the opposite end of the spectrum a case of blasphemy was successfully prosecuted earlier this month in Indonesia.

During re-election campaigning, it was discovered that Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama of Jakarta told potential voters that it was not against Islam or the Quran to vote for a non-Muslim candidate, even though they were told otherwise by their leaders.

Using Indonesia’s strict defamation laws Purnama, who was already unpopular among leaders in the Muslim community, was successfully prosecuted for blasphemy against Islam and is now a few weeks into a two-year jail sentence.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report showing that Indonesia’s blasphemy laws are being used by Islamic militants to justify hate crimes, violence and prosecution against those who question or do not follow their religious ideologies.

Governor Purnama is currently appealing his jail sentence.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019