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9 Aug, 2015 17:04

New Zealand govt slammed by rights group for blasphemy law ‘enacted by stealth’

New Zealand govt slammed by rights group for blasphemy law ‘enacted by stealth’

New Zealand has come under stinging criticism from the New Zealand Humanist Society (NZHS) for adopting the Harmful Digital Communications Act, which is believed to be one of the world’s strictest blasphemy laws.

The NZHS described the law that received Royal assent on July 2 as “an embarrassing step backwards and a severe blow to free speech.” The society said the new act seeking to put an end to cyber-bullying can land people in prison for up to two years for committing blasphemy.

The NZHS also believes the law was introduced “by the back door.”

"This legislation not only flies in the face of human rights, but the introduction of yet another law that gives special privileges to religions is unfair, unpopular and unrepresentative of our society, where over 40 percent of New Zealanders identify as not religious, making this our country's largest single belief group," said Mark Honeychurch, the NZHS president as cited by The New Zealand Herald.

"We want to increase social cohesion and understanding, and by awarding privileges and protecting groups from critique we are closing the door on free speech, free inquiry and public debate. New Zealand has to abolish its blasphemy laws before they are used to censor, suppress, and silence public debate," he added.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act came into force on July 2. It introduces a number of communication principles. One of them states: “A digital communication should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.”

Violators of the law will have to pay a fine up to 50,000NZD (almost $33,200) or serve two years in prison. Corporate bodies will face even higher fines – up to 200,000NZD almost ($133,200).

Advocates of the law believe it will effectively help to fight against cyber-bullying and harmful online content.

Justice Minister Amy Adams said a special agency would be created to work with victims of cyber-bullying.

"The agency will help victims of harassment or cyber-bullying to resolve complaints as quickly and painlessly as possible. It will work with parties to help get objectionable content off the internet, and provide advice on other possible remedies," Adams said on July 27.