A month after mosque mas­sacre

Ardern talks on­line re­form, says the chal­lenge is not a New Zealand is­sue but a global one

Gulf News - - Front Page - BY TOBY MANHIRE

‘I’ll show you some­thing,” says New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern.

We are sit­ting on so­fas in her of­fice on the ninth floor of the Bee­hive, the cir­cu­lar build­ing that houses the New Zealand govern­ment in Welling­ton. It will be one month to­mor­row since a ter­ror­ist at­tack in Christchurch took the lives of 50 peo­ple at prayer.

I have been ask­ing Ardern about her im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the at­tack, which from the out­set put a clear em­pha­sis on in­clu­siv­ity and sol­i­dar­ity. Suc­cinctly, the prime min­is­ter framed what had hap­pened in her own terms. It felt very de­lib­er­ate: was it?

Not so much, Ardern says. “Very lit­tle of what I have done has been de­lib­er­ate. It’s in­tu­itive. I think it’s just the na­ture of an event like this. There is very lit­tle time to sit and think in those terms. You just do what feels right.”

She crosses the of­fice to her desk and pulls an A4 sheet of pa­per from a drawer. It’s been folded in half, and in half again, and again. Printed on the back is the run­ning or­der for an event she hosted in Auck­land the night be­fore the at­tack. On the front are a se­ries of notes, scrawled in Ardern’s rounded hand­writ­ing, grow­ing more hur­ried and less leg­i­ble as they cross the page.

“Th­ese are my notes for the first press con­fer­ence,” she ex­plains.

“I was in a ho­tel room. We only had a short amount of time to pre­pare.”

When the call came, Ardern was trav­el­ling in a mini­van, sit­ting along­side the mayor of New Ply­mouth, a small city on the West Coast of the North Is­land.

“The in­for­ma­tion was patchy and it was very dif­fi­cult to de­ci­pher ex­actly what had hap­pened,” she re­calls. “We didn’t even know a con­firmed toll. In an event like this — I can only as­sume, be­cause I’ve never been through one be­fore — there’s not a lot of time avail­able to think about the lan­guage you want to use.

NO WORDS, JUST SEN­TI­MENTS

“I ab­so­lutely knew what I wanted to say. That, very quickly, was clear to me, when I heard that a mosque had been tar­geted. I knew what I wanted to say about that straight away. But, no, I didn’t think about par­tic­u­lar words. I just thought about sen­ti­ments, and what I thought needed to be con­veyed.”

And yet Ardern’s re­sponse, her choice of lan­guage, has mat­tered enor­mously. In the hours after the at­tack, in which an Aus­tralian-born white-su­prem­a­cist shot dead 50 un­armed peo­ple in two mosques, Ardern said that this was an act of ter­ror­ism. She point­edly re­fused to speak the name of the man who did it.

There was none of the bel­li­cose, war-foot­ing po­lit­i­cal rhetoric that so of­ten stalks ter­ror­ist at­tacks. Gun law re­forms, in­tended to ban all semi-au­to­matic firearms, were ex­pe­dited, with cross-party sup­port. An in­quiry was com­mis­sioned, tasked with ask­ing, among other things, whether an em­pha­sis on Is­lamist ter­ror­ism had meant New Zealand in­tel­li­gence agen­cies were look­ing the wrong way.

The im­ages were just as pow­er­ful. On Satur­day March 16, after an­other press con­fer­ence in Welling­ton, Ardern flew south to Christchurch, where she met mem­bers of the Mus­lim com­mu­nity.

“I am here to­day to bring with me the grief of all New Zealand,” she said. “I am here to stand along­side you... We feel grief, we feel in­jus­tice, and we feel anger.”

She said it wear­ing a head­scarf, an ex­pres­sion of sol­i­dar­ity that sprinted around the world.

Ac­cord­ing to Ardern, the chal­lenge is not a New Zealand is­sue but a global one — one in which so­cial me­dia giants have to up­hold the com­mu­nity stan­dards they have set for them­selves.

“The el­e­ments of that sur­prised me,” says Ardern to­day.

“When I had the all-clear to go down on Satur­day, I asked a friend if they had some­thing for me to bor­row. If I’d been [at home] in Auck­land it would have been dif­fer­ent, but I didn’t have scarves with me. So I asked if she had some­thing I could bor­row, be­cause for me it was just a mark of re­spect. It was nat­u­rally what you would do. So, no, I didn’t re­ally think about that, ei­ther.”

CULPABILITY OF ON­LINE PLAT­FORMS

Among the hideous nov­el­ties of the Christchurch at­tack is the fact that it was live-streamed, in bloody, dystopian de­tail, on Face­book, be­fore metas­ta­sis­ing across the in­ter­net, on sites where white supremacy fes­ters, as well as on gi­ant on­line plat­forms.

We can­not sim­ply sit back and ac­cept that th­ese plat­forms just ex­ist and that what is said on them is not the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the place where they are pub­lished. They are the pub­lisher. Not just the post­man. There can­not be a case of all profit, no re­spon­si­bil­ity.” Jacinda Ardern | New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter

Ardern took that on, too, in her par­lia­men­tary speech on 19 March, four days after the at­tack. “There is no ques­tion that [the] ideas and lan­guage of di­vi­sion and hate have ex­isted for decades, but their form of dis­tri­bu­tion, the tools of or­gan­i­sa­tion, they are new,” she said.

“We can­not sim­ply sit back and ac­cept that th­ese plat­forms just ex­ist and that what is said on them is not the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the place where they are pub­lished. They are the pub­lisher. Not just the post­man. There can­not be a case of all profit, no re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

What, then, does Face­book need to do?

“This isn’t a New Zealand is­sue, this is a global one,” says Ardern, care­fully choos­ing her words. “Re­ally, up­hold­ing the com­mu­nity stan­dards that they’ve set them­selves, I think, is what peo­ple are ask­ing for... We’re ask­ing for them to in­vest in ways to pre­vent the kind of harm we saw in the af­ter­math. And, let’s be hon­est, in the lead up, too.”

I asked her if the Christchurch at­tack had af­fected her op­ti­mism. “No,” she said. “My be­lief in the hu­man­ity of New Zealan­ders has strength­ened. I just know we have a lot of work to do to make that universal.”

AFP

New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern with Mus­lim com­mu­nity lead­ers in Welling­ton fol­low­ing the ter­ror at­tacks on two mosques.

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