Mosque shootings footage shared millions of times, yet only 14 prosecutions

Philip Neville Arps pleaded guilty to charges relating to the distribution of the objectionable live-streamed video of the March 15 mosque attacks and jailed for 21 months.

OPINION: I never thought I would have some sympathy for a white supremacist, but I do.

I have spoken out publicly and given lecture presentations about white supremacy well before the Christchurch terrorist attack – unlike many commentators, including academics, who have written about white supremacy in the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy.

Last year, I wrote in an overseas academic journal that I hoped my paper would contribute to the literature that seeks to “unsettle, disrupt and displace the ideology of white supremacy”. So why then, do I have some sympathy for a white supremacist? Bear with me.

On the day of the Christchurch terrorist attack, March 15, according to court records, Philip Neville Arps received an electronic video copy of the mosque killings recorded by the terrorist on a Go-Pro branded camera. The court records also show on the day after the attack, March 16, Arps “sent the video to another unknown person and instructed them to modify the video to include crosshairs and a ‘kill count'”.

On the same day, as the witch-hunt began in search of white supremacists among us, Stuff reported Arps’ Christchurch insulation business uses a Nazi symbol as its logo – the same symbol in the now-banned manifesto of the Christchurch terrorist.

The signage on his vans said $14.88 per metre for insulation – 1488 is a symbol of white supremacy movements. In 2016 Arps had pleaded guilty to dumping a pig’s head outside the mosque. There’s no doubt that he is a white supremacist – none whatsoever.

On March 19, four days after the terrorist attack, police acted on a search warrant at Arps’ Avonside home and he was formally charged with distributing objectionable material.

He pleaded guilty to two charges under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 in relation to distributing the mosque killings video of the Christchurch terrorist attack. Arps subsequently lost his appeal arguing his 21-month prison sentence was excessive.

Fair enough? He had, after all, sent the unmodified video to about 30 of his associates. But wait a minute. The same court records state that “on March 18, 2019, the chief censor classified the full 17-minute video of the attacks as objectionable”. That’s two days after Arps had distributed the video. It’s also important to note Arps had deleted the files after a public statement from the prime minister that the video was objectionable.

The court records state “emails containing video attachments received on March 16 were in the trash folder, which the judge interpreted as Mr Arps intending to distance himself from the material”. In other words, Arps, a white supremacist, possessed and distributed the Christchurch terrorist attack video before it was classified as objectionable by the chief censor and once the prime minister announced it was objectionable, he deleted his copies and tried to distance himself from it.

Why then, was he charged? He was charged under 124 (1) and 123 (1) (d) of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. In layman’s terms, he distributed a video that he had reasonable cause to believe was objectionable – that is an offence.

The chief censor does not have to classify something as objectionable for it to be objectionable, although he did in this case. Therefore, Arps is guilty. But it’s not as clear cut as you think.

According to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, within the first 24 hours after the attack, “1.5 million copies of the video were taken down from Facebook. There was one upload per second to YouTube in the first 24 hours alone”.

There is no doubt that many New Zealanders possessed and shared electronic copies of that video. Stuff reported that “anecdotal evidence suggests the video was widely viewed by young people” in New Zealand.

You do not need to search the deep web to find admissions. One commenter on Kiwiblog wrote: “I shared a link to this video as it was going out live, apparently I’m now guilty of a crime too.” Yes, you are.

It was recently reported that there have been “14 prosecutions, 10 referrals to the youth court, one written warning and eight verbal warnings” in relation to the video, but it seems Arps is the only person jailed.

If the law is fair, then everyone in New Zealand who possessed or shared it should also be charged and put before the courts. Failure to do so means Arps was jailed for who he is rather than what he did.

* Steve Elers is a senior lecturer at Massey University, who writes a weekly column for Stuff on social and cultural issues.

Mosque shootings footage shared millions of times, yet only 14 prosecutions