Herald Sun vilification complaint dismissed

Complaints brought against the Herald Sun by a former asylum seeker alleging it had incited racial hatred against Muslims in a story published after the 2015 Paris terror attacks have been dismissed by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

The decision is an important one for publishers, as it was based – in part – on lack of jurisdiction, which sets boundaries for cases of this type the tribunal will accept in future.

Aladdin Sisalem, 37, now a Victorian resident, lodged complaints in the tribunal’s human rights division over the story published on the front page of the Herald Sun on November 30, 2015.

The report centred on a discussion by Australian MPs over the need for reform within Islam after terrorist attacks in in the French capital.

Headed, “Islam must change. War hero MP leads radical push”, the story led on a call by former SAS member Andrew Hastie, now a Liberal MP in Western Australia, for an “honest debate’’ on the links between Islamic teaching and terrorism.  His views were supported by other MPs who argued Islam needed to undergo a reformation, similar to the Christian reformation of the 16th century.

Mr Sisalem claimed the story had breached sections 8, 25 and 27 of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act and had incited “hatred of all Muslims and Islam itself”.

In a judgment handed down on Tuesday, VCAT member Julie Grainger ruled the tribunal did not have jurisdiction to deal with claims of serious vilification. Ms Grainger also dismissed his claims that the article had incited hatred.

The feelings of Mr Sisalem, or other Muslims, could not be used to establish a breach of the Act, she said.

Ms Grainger also found Mr Sisalem did not provide any evidence other than his own opinion to show that the publication incited the offence he had claimed.

Complaints to quasi-legal bodies by those seeking redress for offence is a growing trend, carrying ominous threats to freedom of speech and the right to publish in the public interest.

Recently in Tasmania, the state’s Anti-Discrimination Commission accepted a complaint in regard to a booklet in support of traditional marriage issued by the Catholic Church because it offended a transgender person.

The hearing threatened to shut down the debate on same-sex marriage ahead of a planned national plebiscite.

Fortunately, the case was withdrawn – but the debate is still to be had in the new Australian parliament over exemptions from prosecution under anti-discrimination laws for groups expressing views in the lead up to the plebiscite.

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