Judge Blocks Australia’s Worldwide Ban on Bishop Attack Video

COMMENTARY: The most recent attempt by an Australian government entity to enforce its rulings beyond national borders alarmed internet users worldwide and earned a rebuke from an Australian federal judge.

A New South Wales police officer is seen at Christ the Good Shepherd Church in the Sydney suburb of Wakeley on April 16, the day after an attack on Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel at the church.
A New South Wales police officer is seen at Christ the Good Shepherd Church in the Sydney suburb of Wakeley on April 16, the day after an attack on Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel at the church. (photo: Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

A government agency in Australia recently tried to exert its global influence in a case that may become a litmus test for the line between online safety and censorship.

In 2015, Australia established an e-Safety Commission, which describes itself on its website as the “world’s first government agency committed to keeping its citizens safer online.” On its surface, the commission seems like a good thing. It presents a robust set of guidelines for people of all ages to stay safer online, and it even recently proposed an age-verification road map to the Australian government as a means to protect young people from accessing adult content.

However, there is a fine line between benign safety and blatant censorship, and the e-Safety Commission appears to be toeing that line quite closely.

Case in point: When a video of Assyrian Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel in Australia being stabbed multiple times began circulating online in late April, Australia’s e-Safety Commission filed a legal injunction against the X social-media platform (formerly known as Twitter), forcing it to hide the video from users’ feeds. The commission did so on the grounds that the video falls under 2021’s Online Safety Act as “Class-1 material,” which it describes as content that includes depictions of violent crime, child sex offenses, or other “revolting or abhorrent phenomena that offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults.” Past instances of media bans by the Australian government, however, suggest that when it comes to Christianity, their standards of safety are driven more by ideology than morality.

X geoblocked the video from viewers in Australia, but it remained visible globally. In the wake of this, Elon Musk, who owns X, applied to Australia’s Federal Court to overturn the ban and accused the e-Safety Commission of censorship. The commissioner requested and received several extensions on the ban and sought to extend it worldwide, but on May 13, an Australian court officially lifted the ban on the video, with Australian Federal Court Justice Geoffrey Kennett saying it would violate the “comity of nations” to expect X to hide the video from users around the world.

Notably, X was the only platform that pushed back; Meta and the other Big Tech players acquiesced. Even Bishop Emmanuel himself, whose right eye was injured in the attack, said he was “strongly of the view” that the video should remain online. The e-Safety commissioner role is currently occupied by Julie Inman Grant, whose actions have been under close scrutiny by free-speech advocates in Australia.

Daniel Wild of the Institute of Public Affairs, an independent, nonprofit think based in Australia, wrote in a statement: “Recent tragic events have shone a spotlight on how precarious our right to freedom of speech is in Australia. The e-Safety Commissioner has proven to be a law unto herself, has no meaningful democratic accountability, and has wasted taxpayers’ money on a frivolous, ideologically driven lawsuit for purpose of self-aggrandizement.”

He continued: “What this shows is the e-Safety Commissioner has complete and utter disregard for online freedom of speech, and it reinforces the concern that proposed misinformation laws will be abused for political purposes.”

This isn’t the first time that the Australian government has imposed censorship on a major news story involving a Christian leader. In 2018, when the late Cardinal George Pell was put on trial by the Australian High Court for alleged historical sexual abuse, a worldwide gag order was imposed on the media, preventing them from reporting anything about the trial. He was found innocent in a first trial, but then put through a re-trial, where the prosecution built a case against him that, as respected commentator George Weigel repeatedly noted during the trial and after, resulted in an “irrational verdict unsupported by any evidence, corroborating or otherwise.” Cardinal Pell spent over a year in solitary confinement in an Australian prison, but was acquitted of all charges in April 2020.

Some argue that the government-sanctioned gag order likely contributed to the sensational media frenzy and ultimate false prosecution of Cardinal Pell. As Weigel noted, “The media gag order placed on both trials, although likely intended to dampen the circus atmosphere surrounding the case, in fact relieved the prosecution of having to defend its weird and salacious charges in public.”

The actions of the e-Safety Commission ought to be cause for alarm for any global citizen, Christian or otherwise. One need only look at the foibles of the “disinformation” movement to see how the unchecked control — even across international borders — of certain information that’s deemed “inappropriate” by the powers that be is a slippery slope. The fight to keep the internet safe is a noble one, but it must not come at the expense of liberty.