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New Zealand: State surveillance of journalists

July 30, 2013

By Bryce Edwards

Multiple spying scandals and sagas show that New Zealand is suffering from a democratic deficit.

And it’s not just due to the Government’s contentious GCSB spying reforms – the latest major challenge to civil liberties involves state surveillance of journalists.
The must-read account of this is Nicky Hager’s Sunday Star Times exposé, US spy agencies eavesdrop on Kiwi. Hager’s explosive revelations and allegations suggest that the Defence Force is now monitoring New Zealand journalists, and regards some of them as enemies and ‘subversives’ – such as the investigative journalist Jon Stephenson. The response has been widely condemning. Prof Andrew Geddis of the Otago Law School says he’s outraged – see his blogpost, Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault.
Media expert Russell Brown also says he’s ‘angry’ about this and wonders if his own correspondence with Stephenson has been spied upon. He also points to further discussion about the surveillance of New Zealand journalists in his blogpost, The Real Threat. Blogger No Right Turn has two very good discussions of the issues involved and also raises strong opposition – see: We can no longer trust our armed forces and A point that needs making.
Numerous voices are coming to the defence of the media and its important role in holding power accountable without the state snooping on its activities – see for example Matthew Backhouse’s Ex-Defence boss: Journalists not the ‘enemy’. In this, ex-Defence chief Bruce Ferguson comes out as a surprising defender of Nicky Hager, saying: ‘He gets a lot of it right, he gets some of it wrong but he keeps everyone honest, and I think that’s probably a very healthy thing to do. And if you don’t have those sorts of people, you’re getting into autocracy and dictatorship, and I’d hate to see us go that way’. And Labour defence spokesman Phil Goff, has spoken out very strongly on the matter and called for government action – see Michael Daly’s Defence ‘subversives’ definition slammed. Also, Peter Dunne (@PeterDunneMP) has tweeted to say such state surveillance is ‘appalling and unacceptable’.
Meanwhile, Gordon Campbell says that as ‘Disturbing as the Defence Force mindset may be, it would be misleading to assume that such attitudes are confined to the armed forces and the Police. The hostility to investigative journalism is an outcome of the ongoing politicisation of the public service’ – see: On the Defence Force’s paranoia about journalism. And blogger Martyn Bradbury asks, Was the Prime Minister’s Office aware of the NZDF spying on a NZ journalist?
State surveillance of journalists hasn’t been limited to warzones. Disturbing attempts to track political journalists within Parliament and spy on their metadata has also been revealed. The Fairfax press gallery journalist Andrea Vance has been the victim of attempts by Government investigator, David Henry, to access her phone records and use of her security card. For the latest on this, see Tracy Watkins and Hamish Rutherford’s Journalist’s movements tracked by leak inquiry. It turns out that the Parliamentary Service was happy to hand over security card metadata, but drew the line at handing out information on the media’s use of phones. Read more in the National Business Review.
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