Controversial preacher Dr Zakir Naik has addressed the Oxford Union by satellite link, despite being banned from visiting the UK by the home secretary.
The Home Office has wide discretion to exclude radicals which it considers have displayed ‘unacceptable behaviours’ , and the preacher was excluded under this policy in June 2010. The exclusion is currently being challenged in the courts. The home office successfully defended the ban in the high court (see our post), but that judgment is being challenged by the preacher in the court of appeal.
Similar issues arose recently when Pastor Terry Jones, an American pastor who threatened to burn Korans on the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was banned from entering the UK “for the public good”.
But, as the high court made clear, the ban only applied to his physical presence in the UK, not his appearance by video link. Interestingly, the Guardian report that invitation could provide an “awkward dilemma” for the Conservative party because former shadow home secretary Chris Grayling promised to ban the use of satellite technology to broadcast the views of excluded Islamist preachers based abroad. He told a US audience at the end of 2009:
If we are in Government, we will take further steps to outlaw such activity – and to prosecute those who organise the propagation of banned ideologies via video and satellite links in public places.
Although the ban has not been implemented, it is questionable whether it would be practically enforceable in any case. For example, would it extend to the delayed broadcast, perhaps via YouTube, of a preacher who is answering questions sent in advance?
From a human rights perspective, it would be far more onerous to ban a preacher’s views entirely than simply to exclude him physically from the UK. In the Naik case, the court not only considered the preacher’s human rights to freedom of expression under article 10 of the European Convention, which did not apply as he was out of the jurisdiction, but also the rights of his supporters to receive information.
The high court found that his supporters were entitled to the right to receive the information that Dr Naik would have given them during his public lectures, and
That is especially so in this case where it is apparent that Dr Naik’s question and answer sessions are significant to his public lectures. It is the ability to directly see, hear and interact that is a feature of Dr Naik’s attraction.
However, the interference with Article 10 could be justified under Article 10(2) as it was proportionate and in accordance with the law governed by the Immigration Rules and the published Unacceptable Behaviours Policy.
The court of appeal may have a different view. But if the ban were extended to satellite links too, the supporters’ article 10 arguments would be stronger. The court made much of the fact that Naik’s supporters could access his ideas elsewhere:
Dr Naik is not prevented from making or distributing his views through, for example, Peace TV. Those interested can obtain easy access to them through his broadcasts or the recordings of his public lectures. The limitation is that he cannot appear at public events in this country. The interaction with the audience in his public lectures is an important aspect in the expression of Dr Naik’s views. Those in this country will have to experience that second-hand, through watching it take place elsewhere.
It remains to be seen how the court of appeal will view Naik’s ban from the country. But, if the government is intending to ban public broadcasts of controversial preachers, of which there is no sign at present, it should pause before doing so as this may breach freedom of expression rights.
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