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August 5, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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If the Press Is Not Free, Nothing Is

New Zealanders consider our country to be both a free and contested democracy.  Since its founding, our nation has been one based upon the principles of English common law and the best of British liberalism. These are, broadly, values of freedom. Freedom to worship whoever you choose, to assemble in political groupings, to vote, and freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is so important because it is the cornerstone of so many other freedoms we take for granted in New Zealand.

The Government which I defend so often in this column has committed crimes which, if proven, are very grievous indeed. The Opposition has alleged that the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Wayne Eagleson, leaned on Parliamentary Services for the phone records of journalist Andrea Vance. It has previously been revealed that Vance’s parliamentary swipe-card logs had been given to the Henry inquiry, which had been investigating the leak of the findings of the Kitteridge inquiry (inquiry-ception?) The Henry inquiry was trying to find out who might have leaked the Kitteridge inquiry to Vance.

As you now know, it is now 99-per-cent likely it was Peter Dunne who leaked the Kitteridge inquiry, as he has resigned as a minister and refuses to surrender his emails to Andrea Vance, to the Henry inquiry.  This is beside the point. The point is that Mr Eagleson, who is often acknowledged as speaking with ‘the Prime Minister’s Voice’, requested the phone records of a parliamentary journalist.

This greatly worries me. In countries less free than New Zealand, the press is heavily controlled or monitored by the state. China has no free press inside the People’s Republic. Journalists are murdered in Russia. In Venezuela, the government buys or closes down newspapers it disagrees with. We are not there yet, but every journey towards dictatorship begins with a first step.

If the Government is directly interfering with or spying on journalists, then journalists are not free to challenge or question them. Journalists keep our politicians accountable. It is no coincidence that in all of the most horrific dictatorships throughout human history, the first thing to go has been the freedom of the press. Nazi Germany, Franco’s Spain and various South American juntas all censored then banned the free press. I am not suggesting that the Government is about to crack down on the free press in New Zealand, but spying on a journalist is a tiny, uncomfortable nudge in that direction.

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