Do Anti-Terrorism Act Amendments Threaten Free Speech?

It's good that the Ministry of Public Safety has decided to introduce amendments to the existing Anti-Terrorism Act of Canada. These recommendations, if approved, will strengthen measures to address the ongoing threat of radicalization and terrorism in the country. The revised Anti-Terrorism Act would outlaw terrorist training, as well as the glorification of terror, martyrdom and violence.
One would have imagined that such provisions were already in existence under Canada's terrorism laws, as they must be considered an imperative in today's tense political climate. Outlawing incitement to violence and prohibiting the dissemination of its mechanisms seem logical and necessary. Even so, such measures may engender considerable controversy under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Glorifying terror and its related ideologies may appear especially controversial as it was in the United Kingdom a few years ago. Multiculturalists or Islamist apologists may very well invoke the freedom of speech argument to prevent the proposed amendments from materializing.
Certainly freedom of speech is important, but even more important is the prevention of terrorist attacks consequent to radicalization. The radicalization process is complex and can occur in a number of ways. First, the narrative on jihad, violence and terror is layered and subtle enough to escape scrutiny. Because of the complexities associated with the narrative, it clouds the debate on what is or isn't acceptable speech. For example, is a call to jihad also a call to commit acts of terror, now that many radicals equate jihad with terror? Before outlawing "glorification," policy makers must be acutely aware of what exactly is it that constitutes glorification of terror.
While much of the world's terrorism is being exported from countries like Pakistan and Somalia, homegrown terror and radicalization pose a grave threat to public safety in Canada. Small homegrown terror cells that feed each other's pugnacity, as well as lone rangers who snap over perceived political injustices, pose the greatest threat to public safety.
The government, and the Ministry of Public Safety in particular, must identify trouble spots in the radical narrative and formulate effective policies to accordingly counter it. Existing hate crime laws do not adequately address the problem of radicalization because the ideologies spewing extremism are complex, insidious and not as easily detectable as hate speech.
The Internet is replete with such narratives. Under the tightened measures, more people will be charged for inciting terrorism and violence on the Internet especially. A word of caution though: Any amendment to existing laws will have to be carefully calibrated to reveal suspect materials, while at the same time ensuring such narratives are not driven underground to escape surveillance.
The challenge of countering terrorism and keeping the Canadian public safe is monumental. The Ministry of Public Safety, Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS) and ordinary citizens must combine resources and share ideas to combat the threat. In a conference organized by Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies in Ottawa, Andy Ellis of CSIS also noted, "We need to expand our efforts into longer term preventive programming that will foster individual and community resilience to extremist discourse."
The above statement is telling. It will surely take the combined wisdom of various departments and agencies, as well as ordinary Canadians, to help avert a possible terrorist attack. Such attacks can occur randomly anywhere, at any time. Therefore all Canadians must contribute to ensure public safety by remaining vigilant and involved.
Farzana Hassan

Send questions or comments to Farzana Hassan