Day 6

Criminalizing 'terrorist propaganda': does it help or hinder our safety?

The government's new anti-terror laws seek to criminalize advocating or promoting acts of terrorism, including if that happens online. The laws also give authorities the power to pull down websites and social media posts deemed to be "terrorist propaganda". Those found guilty could face up to five years in prison. Legal experts say the measure is a catch-all and threatens freedom of speech. Security experts say it's exactly what the authorities need to fight radicalization. But will putting a chill on terror speech help or hinder our safety?
Chiheb Esseghaier is accused of helping to plot a terror attack involving a Via Rail train. He appeared in a Toronto court Monday by video link. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The government's new anti-terror laws seek to criminalize advocating or promoting acts of terrorism, including online. The laws also give authorities the power to pull down websites and social media posts deemed to be terrorist propaganda. Those found guilty could face up to five years in prison. 
Legal experts say the measure is a catch-all and threatens freedom of speech. Security experts say it's exactly what the authorities need to fight radicalization. So, will putting a chill on terror speech help or hinder our safety?


Point / Counterpoint

How would this this new crime threaten free speech?

Craig Forcese is professor of law at the University of Ottawa and specializes in national security. He says that the current offences in the criminal code already target terrorism-related speech and that going further could create more problems than solutions.

"Imagine an Al Qaeda-inspired worldview and a person expressing the view that, 'Islam is under attack by Western crusaders and that it is the duty of good Muslims to act in defence, even with violence.' That's the sort of statement that conceivably could fall within the ambit of what it means to promote and advocate."

"That statement is not itself criminal unless undertaken in such circumstances where the person making it knows that there's a possibility that someone hearing it would then themselves engage in a terrorism offence in general. The difficulty is that the concept of a terrorism offence in general is itself quite sweeping. [It] could reach conduct that is extremely far removed from violence."

"The law on its face does not discriminate between causes, so it is not particular to any particular ideology. If the shoe fits, in terms of the other elements of the offence then certainly someone who says, for example, 'We should be supporting Ukrainian insurgency groups in their efforts to attack Russian oil installations in an effort to deter Russia from intervening in Ukraine.' 

"That, too, is the sort of statement that, applied in the appropriate context where there might be some fear that the listeners would then give money to that insurgency, could constitute this new offence."
"What we're concerned about is that speech that's one step further removed from actual violence. That starts to get into the area of unpopular and unpalatable opinions, but not necessarily opinions that are so closely affiliated with violence that, in a free and democratic society, we should quash them."

Does criminalizing this type of speech help or hinder our safety?

"The literature suggests that when it comes to Al-Qaeda-inspired radicalization, the best tool might actually be what are known as counter-violent extremism programs. That is, programs designed to steer persons away from taking that one last step from radicalized worldviews to actual violence."

"Radicalized worldviews are not very closely correlated with actual steps to violence. Statistically, there are significantly more people who have the radicalized worldview than who engage in violence, so it's important to make that distinction. But, the best avenue for us to address this is through counter-violent extremism programs, which the RCMP has now [started]."

"This is not a [problem] that is going to be solved through prisons and penitentiaries. On the contrary, you can imagine if our use of these offences is too sweeping and we end up putting people with the wrong views, who express them in the wrong circumstances in prison, they're not likely to emerge from their five years incarceration with their views rolled back and with a warm and more open worldview of the society in which they live."

"The fear that I harbour is that those counter-violent extremism programs, which depend on the frank exchange of views, will run up against a speech chill. That is, persons aware of this new speech crime will be preoccupied with their legal exposure and will not express their views in a manner that facilitates the success of the program."

"The more intelligent of them will, of course, go dark when it comes to what they say on Twitter and other places and open source intelligence of the sort one finds of Facebook and Twitter are often the best ingredient, in terms of anticipating where people might be going and what they might be doing."

"I give a lot of credit to the RCMP in terms of their record in relation to investigations, and to crowns in terms of prosecutions. I want to help their work, not hinder it, and I think this new offence hinders it."

Point / Counterpoint

John Maguire, who was already reportedly under investigation by the RCMP after travelling to Syria to join ISIS as a foreign fighter in January 2013, appears in a six-minute, 13-second video released by the militant group on Sunday. (ISIS video still/CBC)

John Thompson is the Vice President of Strategic Capital and Intelligence Group and the former head of the Mackenzie Institute, a security think-tank.

Criminalizing online 'terrorist propaganda' will slow radicalization and recruitment

"Recruitment and radicalization largely takes place in public forums anyway. They use the Internet and social media as their main tools and to go underground would make it much more difficult for them. They won't be able to be nearly as efficient as they are right now."

"The jihadist movement, especially because they've embraced social media to such an extent, is recruiting like crazy. This is the problem that our police and security agencies are having - they can't keep up with they way they're radicalizing people right now and they're swamped."

"[The authorities] need new tools in the toolkit. They need to be able to change the paradigm that they're operating in because if they don't there's only going to be one inevitable outcome and that is a successful and major attack in Canada at some time."

The new offence would not be so different from the current limits on free speech

"The limit of free speech that's always existed is that you can't yell, 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre and you can't advocate hate and the jihad movement is nothing if it isn't a hate movement. So this limitation isn't anything new, it actually reflects Canadian legislation and regulation that have been around for a very long time."

"Someone who's in the jihad, who's espousing the jihad, who's recruiting for it - he is doing something criminal. He's encouraging people to attack our allies. He's encouraging people to attack our way of life."
Limiting online terrorist propaganda in Canada is not enough

"One of the things is that a number of countries do is they copy each other's counter-terror legislation. There are other countries that are looking at, for example, the Canadian initiative to cut off the passports of dual citizens who go abroad to fight for a terrorist group. That measure is quite trivial if you look at it as Canada alone, but if other countries follow it, especially the United States where so many web sites are hosted, then you're talking about a law that's got real impact."

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