Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have written a joint open letter to the prosecutor-general of the Philippines calling for an end to the orchestrated harassment of the news website Rappler and its editor, Maria Ressa, which began more than a year ago.
The website, which has more than 3.7 million followers on Facebook alone, has been under constant bureaucratic and legal attack by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The Department of Justice earlier this month said that it planned to file unspecified tax evasion charges against Rappler and the website’s founder and executive editor, award-winning Maria Ressa.
The two media freedom advocacy groups said the government was trying to “silence” the website and its journalists.
Later it filed on November 9 a criminal case against two Rappler executives for allegedly avoiding paying 133.8 million pesos ($9.6 million) in tax.
“We urge you to cease this campaign of intimidation and harassment against Rappler, both for the sake of respecting press freedom and for your government’s international credibility,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in the joint open letter.
Rappler publisher Maria Ressa could face up to 10 years in prison for tax evasion. Noel Celis /RSF/AFP
“We maintain that this is a clear form of continuing intimidation and harassment against us, and an attempt to silence journalists.”
The website said there was no legal basis for the action. The open letter said:
Mr Richard Anthony Fadullon Prosecutor-General Department of Justice Ermita, Manila 1000 Republic of the Philippines Via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Prosecutor General Fadullon,
We at the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders, two independent non-profit press freedom organisations, ask that you and your office end the politicised persecution of Philippine news site Rappler.
The Department of Justice earlier this month said that it planned to file tax evasion charges against Rappler and the website’s founder and executive editor, Maria Ressa. The charges relate to a company bond sale in 2015 that, according to reports, resulted in 162.5 million pesos (euros 2,7 million) in financial gains. The Justice Department’s statement did not indicate how much Rappler and Ressa allegedly owed in taxes.
Ressa has denied the allegation and said that Rappler is compliant with all Philippine tax laws, including the transaction in question. She said she believes the legal threat is an attempt to silence her news outlet’s critical reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s government. CPJ and RSF have documented in the past year how authorities have retaliated against Rappler’s coverage, including by banning its reporters from the presidential palace and referring to the site as “fake news” and “biased.”
The Department of Justice’s announcement that it will seek to file tax evasion charges is strikingly and worryingly similar to previous legal harassment of Rappler. The news site is still fighting a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) order to revoke its registration. The Court of Appeals ruled in July that the SEC had erred in its move to revoke Rappler’s certificate of incorporation, but the outlet’s motion to fully annul the order is still pending.
We view the tax evasion charges, which carry potential 10-year prison penalties under local law, as a clear and present threat to press freedom. As Ressa has pointed out, the charges could potentially threaten foreign investors who use similar mechanisms, and could thus damage the Philippine economy
We urge you to cease this campaign of intimidation and harassment against Rappler, both for the sake of respecting press freedom and for your government’s international credibility.
Sincerely, Joel Simon Executive Director Committee to Protect Journalists
Christophe Deloire Secretary-General Reporters Without Borders
The media has played a central role in this year’s huge scandal involving MP Jami-Lee Ross. Journalists, broadcasters, and political commentators have reported on the scandal – including choosing to withhold some information – and interpreted it all. Inevitably questions have been asked about how well the media have performed, and the decisions they have made.
I raised some of these issues in my column yesterday, Lifting the bedsheets on MPs’ private lives. Further questions include how much the media have influenced the scandal themselves, in terms of what they’ve decided to report and not report, and the role some in the media have played in their interactions with the political players.
What to report and what to leave hidden?
The media face plenty of tough decisions about what to report in politics, especially in incredibly fraught cases such as the Jami-Lee Ross scandal. One of the biggest issues the media have been grappling with is whether to name the National MP who was reported to be in a three-year relationship with Ross, and who anonymously made allegations about his behaviour in Melanie Reid and Cass Mason’s report, Jami-Lee Ross: Four women speak out. The same National MP was also reported to have sent Ross the infamous abusive text message in which she told him, “You deserve to die.”
Journalists and newsrooms around the country continue to debate whether the National MP should continue to have her name kept from the public. Veteran political journalist, Richard Harman raised this on the Kiwi Journalists Association Facebook page: “Like most political journalists, I believe I know who that MP is… The inexorable pressure is now moving towards naming the MP. It’s a very difficult ethical issue. I certainly have emails from people on the left making the same allegation as Whaleoil — that the Press Gallery is party to a cover-up. But equally at what point does this simply become prurient gossip?”
What follows is a fascinating debate amongst journalists, with varying views. Journalist, Graham Adams argues in favour of disclosure and is worth quoting at length: “My view is that she should be named (and I think most of the media are waiting for someone else to do it first!). Until she is named, it casts suspicion on other female MPs who are not involved, which is unfair. Also, the female MP whose name has been frequently mentioned on social media represents a conservative electorate, is socially conservative herself and has promoted family values from her first days in Parliament. I think the public should always been told when an MP’s publicly professed values are at sharp variance to their own private behaviour. That is an obligation the media should fulfil. Furthermore, she has no right to privacy when she has anonymously and publicly shamed Jami-Lee Ross in the Newsroom piece by Melanie Reid. She’s an MP and a highly educated professional whose actions should be held to account. If she had any courage, she would come clean herself.”
He also raises the issue of whether the media is being inconsistent, and is going easy on the National MP because she is powerful. The comparison is made with the media choosing in 2013 to publish the identity of the woman who had an affair with then then mayor of Auckland, Len Brown: “The fact that five years later the media is so coy about naming a married National MP who anonymously gave Newsroom highly personal details about her relationship with another married National MP inevitably raises uncomfortable questions — including whether there is one rule for Parliament which has a dedicated press gallery that operates in a symbiotic relationship with politicians and another for councils which don’t. A casual observer might conclude that when you’re a woman like Chuang who is an ambitious nobody you’re fair game but when you’re a woman like the National MP who is an ambitious somebody the media will protect you.”
The Southland Times also favours disclosure of the woman’s name. In the editorial, ‘Moving on’ is not acceptable, the newspaper argues that the MP is a “hypocrite” for not abiding by National’s core value of “Personal Responsibility”. The paper raises whether the women’s abusive text to Ross “could be a breach of the Harmful Digital Communication Act”, and whether she therefore can “really stay in her role as an MP”. The newspaper elaborates on this issue in second editorial, Another issue arises from the Ross case.
The Listener’s Jane Clifton discusses how gender issues also come into the debate: “Until now, the line in the sand has been the hypocrisy test. Outside the old News of the World wilds, the journalistic orthodoxy has always been that such personal indiscretions as boozing or illicit affairs go unreported unless the public figure concerned is guilty of obvious double-standards. #MeToo shifted the public interest sand line to: was there an imbalance of power, and/or abuse?” – see: Why you should never say ‘now I’ve seen everything’ in politics.
On Facebook Graham Adams takes the view that it’s actually her gender that is protecting her from being outed: “I imagine that if gender roles had been reversed and a man had sent a similar text to the female MP that included personal abuse (including calling her fat and sweaty) and telling her that she ‘deserved to die’, he would have been outed just as soon as his identity had been established. Not many journalists would have hesitated. And he would have been widely and viciously pilloried for it. The MP has successfully cast herself as a victim despite her rank in society as an MP and a successful professional, which is presumably why journalists are hesitant to name her.”
The Press Gallery’s role in the Jami-Lee Ross scandal
As the above debate shows, some are questions about the role of the Press Gallery journalists in how the whole scandal has been covered, and what that says about their proximately to those in power. Certainly, there has always been a complex and symbiotic relationship between journalists and politicians – they rely on each other for the communication of politics to the public. Journalists need MPs to provide them with content for stories, and MPs need the media to distribute their news and views.
But does that mean journalists end up being compromised or complicit in the political agendas of the various political actors? Chris Trotter definitely thinks so – see his Otago Daily Times column Too close for comfort. Here’s Trotter’s main question: “What is the electorate supposed to do if those entrusted with reporting the actions of the principal political players, themselves become important actors in the drama?”
RNZ’s Jo Moir, has been very frank about her use of politician sources, when reflecting on her major scoop in the Jami-Lee Ross scandal, when she published the details of the anonymous texts that were sent to Simon Bridges and Speaker Trevor Mallard, asking for the leak inquiry to be called off. Moir discusses this in the RNZ Focus on Politics programme for 24 August – listen here: Focus on Politics for 24 August 2018.
Moir explains: “Sources are a journalist’s lifeline. And I would probably say even more so when it comes to Parliament and the Press Gallery. I mean every great story that comes out of this place is usually from some sort of a relationship between a Press Gallery reporter and a politician. The amount of information that you get “off the record” in this environment is huge. And that is all based on trust. So, the reality is that journalists go to the grave with that information. And you are just never going to make it in the game really if you don’t.”
Of course, Moir then unintentionally became part of Ross’ downfall, as the National Party’s PWC investigation report focused on the phone calls and texts that Ross had made to Moir in concluding that he was the likely leaker of Bridges’ travel expenditure details. In response to this allegation, Ross tweeted that his communications with Moir were because she was a “friend”.
Some have suggested journalists have relationships with MPs that go further than friendship. As Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins has said, the revelations about Ross’ sexual relationships “sent shock waves through Parliament. Labour MPs were just as rocked as their National counterparts. There was a feeling that a line in New Zealand politics had finally been crossed. And a fear that there may be no going back. Parliament is never short of gossip about affairs between MPs, between MPs and their staffers – and, yes, journalists as well” – see: The Jami-Lee Ross saga – dirty, ugly, nasty politics with no end in sight.
This raises the question of whether political journalists choose not to report on certain issues in order to protect their own privacy, or that of their colleagues. Ross, himself, has hinted at this in some of his statements.
Blogger Pete George thinks relationships need to be disclosed: “I think that the media should name the MP who is at the centre of this issue, but if they do they should also look at the wider issue of relationships and sex among MPs, journalists and staff. Journalists should disclose personal relationships if it relates to politicians they are reporting on and giving their opinions on. There are issues with journalists straying more and more into political activist roles, so the public has a right to know who may be influencing their opinions and their choice of stories and headlines…When they don’t want to go near the sex and relationship thing it suggests they could have secrets of their own they don’t want disclosed. This is not a good situation for the supposedly without favour fearless fourth estate to be in.”
The media’s fraught use of anonymous sources
The media quite rightly relies on anonymous sources to carry out its investigations into issues that are in the public interest. Leaks are made to journalists, and “off the record” briefings are important in establishing important stories about politics and power. A number of the stories published about the Jami-Lee Ross scandal have relied on secret sources. Most notable, were Melanie Reid’s Newsroom story with the allegations about Ross’ treatment of women, and the RNZ Checkpoint broadcast of details about the abusive text sent to him by the National MP he allegedly had an affair with.
The use of such sources has helped the public understand what’s been going on behind the scenes. But that doesn’t mean that it is without ethical problems and questions. One of the journalists with the most experience of this, and who has deeply considered the ethics, is Nicky Hager – see his useful piece: Dirty Politics, 2018.
Hager sees some parallels with the journalistic practices he covered in his 2014 book, where the media ends up running the agendas of political actors: “This is reminiscent of the way that Cameron Slater used to hand out scoops attacking opposition politicians to willing journalists (the scoops often having been quietly prepared in John Key’s office).”
But he warns against the media doing the bidding of various political players: “I believe media should not take politically motivated attacks (Slater called them ‘hits’) from political people and allow their identities and motives to remain hidden from the public. Otherwise the journalists are just being used.”
Of course, he’s not the only one who thinks that National had its fingerprints on the “hitjob” against Ross. Heather du Plessis-Allan explained the Newsroom story like this: “The party is in full attack-Jami-Lee mode. Why do you think at least four women have suddenly come forward accusing Ross of everything from bullying to ‘brutal sex’?”
Is it really time to “move on” from the Jami-Lee Ross mega-scandal? Certainly, that’s what National leader Simon Bridges has been saying over the last week. There are others outside of the National Party who also have an interest in “moving on”.
Some in the media have been sympathetic to Bridges’ plea to stop focusing on the saga. Last week The Press newspaper published an editorial expressing horror at how the scandal had consumed us all: “this is cheap entertainment, delivered in bite-sized, episodic morsels. But now we are potentially actors, not just observers, in a slow-motion train wreck” – see: Turn away from the train wreck.
The newspaper suggests the scandal has become a tragedy, and Bridges’ call should be heeded, for the good of everyone: “it may be good advice for the rest of us to consider. How far down do we want to go in following one man’s descent? Ross and whoever is behind him have had the stage, they’ve had their 15 minutes of infamy. Now it’s exit stage right. And not just for Ross’ sake.”
The hard-hitting editorial states: “There’s nothing worse than politicians who are hypocrites, and right now the National Party falls right into that category. If you ever wanted to read about a cop-out, here’s a cracker one for you. The National Party, it seems, is ‘moving on’. Well, surely the public deserves more than the glib response that came from its chief press secretary on Friday.”
Stuff journalist Martin van Beynen raises concerns that both journalists and the public likely have about how the media should continue to cover the story, asking: How do we handle a mentally unwell MP?
Here’s his main point: “Journalists are now in an invidious position. Let’s assume Ross, looking poised and comfortable, calls a press conference to announce more revelations about his former friends in the National Party. Do we ignore him because of his underlying illness and advise him to seek help or do we treat him as a flawed individual, assume his mental illness in under control, and report what he has to say, based on its merits? According to some of the pundits, journalists apparently have to be politically correct social workers as well as reporting events and their background.”
What should journalists and politicians leave out of the public sphere?
We have learnt a lot more about politics and politicians from the scandal. And now there is the question about whether we have learnt too much. This is something politicians and journalists have always had to grapple with – having to decide what to make public, and what to leave hidden.
Early on in the scandal, Danyl Mclauchlan wrote an excellent summary and discussion of what the whole episode meant, in which he pushed the point that it was very significant, because “So much of what happens in politics never makes it into the media” – see: The uniquely damaging betrayals of Jami-Lee Ross.
Many people argue, Mclauchlan says, that “Politics should be about policy and values”, when in fact “for professional politicians ‘values’ are mostly just a form of marketing”. Therefore a focus on policy and values can just be a disingenuous way of avoiding the reality of what politics is really about. That’s why the particulars of this scandal are important: “We’re learning a lot about some of the people who run our country, or who aspire to, because we’re – briefly – seeing them as they really are, not as they want to be seen.”
I also discussed some of this in an opinion piece, explaining how politicians generally have an informal pact of silence, which journalists also abide by, when it comes to certain topics – especially the “no go zones” of allegations of sexual improprieties and political finance corruption – but on occasions such as this there is a breakdown of those norms and conventions – see: The dangerously escalating political scandal wars between Simon Bridges and Jami-Lee Ross.
It can be both democratically useful and dangerous when these conventions breakdown, allowing the public to see much more of what goes on behind the scenes, including in politicians’ private lives. This was discussed further by RNZ’s Jeremy Rose, who suggested that if such a code of silence does exist, “then there is a real crisis of democracy” – see: Politics, sex and the media.
Is the delineation between the public and private lives of politicians breaking down?
The above article also quotes me from an appearance on TVNZ’s Q+A, about the media’s traditional boundaries between public and private lives: “We used to have a very strong delineation between reporting on politics and personal lives of politicians. The media did not go there, the politicians didn’t go there. They didn’t really used to bring up what’s going on beneath the bed sheets but of course now that Jami-Lee Ross has been in this situation, they sort of have to in a sense.”
In response, Rose asks: “So are we seeing an erosion of that convention?” And he points to various examples from his own employer as evidence that perhaps this is the case: “on Wednesday RNZ Morning Report presenter Susie Ferguson ended her interview with National Party leader Simon Bridges with this question: ‘Have you done anything that wouldn’t pass Paula Bennett’s test of ‘behaviour acceptable of a married MP?’ Simon Bridges’ replied ‘No’. And the interview ended. It was an unfair question.”
Also at RNZ, Colin Peacock continues to ask questions about how much journalists should be reporting on the details of the scandal – see: Meltdowns, blow-ups and blowback as MP goes rogue, in which he argues newsrooms will have to work out what is in the public interest as the scandal continues.
It includes a vivid statement from Newshub’s Duncan Garner who argues that both Ross and Bridges deserved scrutiny from the media and public: “It’s unbecoming, isn’t it, of the national’s representatives? And both men look simply ridiculous. But that’s what happens with the dance of the desperates turns to rolling around in the mud – fighting for their careers in the gutter, where the truth struggles to exist… I’ve never seen so much dirty, filthy laundry, and tawdry secrets dragged into the public arena before. This is most certainly unprecedented. It’s not some unseemly struggle over the direction of the party or the policies, it’s about twisted ambition, promises, dirty digging, and careers going nowhere fast.”
Allegations by and about Jami-Lee Ross have changed the game
Certainly, Jami-Lee Ross believes that conventions over keeping private lives out of politics and the media have been destroyed. After the Newsroom story was published with allegations from four women about their experiences with Ross, he hit back, saying: “A scab has been picked on the parliamentary personal issues. It has long been a case where personal matters are kept private, but the rules of the game have changed” – see: National MP Jami-Lee Ross admits to affairs with two women, vows to stay in Parliament.
Furthermore, he said: “There’s a lot of bed-hopping that goes on down in that Parliament. There’s a lot of behaviour that a lot of people would want kept secret and has been kept secret until now. But the way in which we now play politics is that we lift the bed-sheets.”
In an interview with the Herald’s Kirsty Johnston, Ross warned that, with the breakdown of conventions, more would now come out: “Half the Beehive were having inappropriate relationships, he said, but until now, that aspect of political life had been off limits… But those rules have changed in Parliament now. Things that were previously never discussed are now being discussed” – see: Volatile but not abusive: National MP Jami-Lee Ross speaks out about affair with fellow MP.
The charge of hypocrisy is now clearly one that Ross feels entitled to use in outing other MPs: “If the standard is that behaviour is no longer such that someone could continue as an MP then I’d suggest … that one out of three maybe one out of two MPs would have to question their behaviour as well.”
Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins also argues that an important line in politics and media has been crossed, and a return might now be impossible: “The bombshell Newsroom story that two women alleged they’d had had toxic sexual relationships with Ross pushed the nuclear button on their release. Ross accuses National of feeding Newsroom the story, alleging that one of the sources was an MP and two of them work for the party. The story certainly sent shock waves through Parliament. Labour MPs were just as rocked as their National counterparts. There was a feeling that a line in New Zealand politics had finally been crossed. And a fear that there may be no going back. Parliament is never short of gossip about affairs between MPs, between MPs and their staffers – and, yes, journalists as well. The parties all have dirt files. But they rarely use it. It’s called the nuclear option for a reason. All that has changed” – see: The Jami-Lee Ross saga – dirty, ugly, nasty politics with no end in sight.
Undoubtedly there will be many who see this breakdown of convention as a welcome development. For example, conservative blogger Ewen McQueen says: “MPs and journalists alike much prefer the code of silence that keeps the rest of us in the dark. We are told the reason for the secrecy is to protect MPs’ families. It is a reason that appears noble but which is merely self-serving” – see: Time to break Wellington’s code of silence.
So, are the media playing the role of “morality police” when they don’t report on the behaviour of politicians? McQueen seems to think so, arguing the public should be the judge: “The code of silence also insults the public of New Zealand who have a right to know the true character of the people they are being asked to vote for… The Wellington establishment arrogantly assumes we have no need to know and such matters are not relevant to public life. This is a lie.”
Finally, for the best discussion on questions of the delineation between public and private lives of politicians, see Tim Watkin’s blog post, Don’t give me culture – the question of character. He argues that the Jami-Lee Ross controversies raise the question, “how much does character and integrity matter?” Watkin suggests “Maybe we just want the right to know what our leaders are really like and for it to be up to us whether or not we want to vote for them – flaws and all.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrived today for the leader’s retreat at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru where she is expected to ask for details about the detention of TVNZ journalist Barbara Dreaver yesterday.
Dreaver, who is there to cover the Forum, was interviewing a refugee outside a restaurant when she was picked up by police.
She says they asked for her visa, told her she was breaching her conditions and cancelled her accreditation for the Pacific Islands Forum.
Papua New Guinea threatened to temporarily ban Facebook earlier this year. With the APEC conference looming in November, the question remains whether this was an attack on freedom of speech. Jessica Marshall of Asia-Pacific Journalism reports in a two-part series on the Pacific internet.
In March, it was revealed that the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested millions of Facebook profiles.
The breach, thought to be one of Facebook’s biggest, reportedly used the data to influence both the United States 2016 presidential election and the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom.
In the aftermath, Facebook announced a commitment “to reducing the spread of false news on Facebook,” by removing false accounts and using independent third-party factcheckers to curb fake news on the site.
The effectiveness of this new policy remains to be seen.
The revelation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal lead to the Papua New Guinean government threat in May that it would ban the social network for a month in the country.
Communications Minister Sam Basil was reported by news media as saying the ban decision was an attempt to enforce the Cyber Crime Act 2016.
A horde of PNG “ban on Facebook” stories on Google, but stories on PNG’s subsequent back off in the proposal are hard to find. Image: PMC
“The Act has already been passed, so what I’m trying to do is to ensure the law is enforced accordingly… We cannot allow the abuse of Facebook to continue in the country.” Basil told the Post-Courier.
Difficult to track According to The Guardian, Basil had raised concerns about the protection of the privacy of Papua New Guinea’s Facebook users. He had claimed that it was difficult to track those who had posted defamatory comments on Facebook using “ghost profiles”.
Basil later denied in the media that he had said he would ban Facebook, but the Post-Courier stood by its report which had sparked of the flurry of stories and speculation. So far no ban has actually taken place.
Papua New Guinea is not the only country to have banned the social media site. Facebook is already blocked in authoritarian countries like China, Iran and North Korea.
In March, Sri Lanka blocked the site along with Viber and WhatsApp for nine days, believing it to be the cause of hate speech and violence.
Facebook was also condemned for allowing hate speech to become prominent in Myanmar during the Rohingya crisis earlier in the year.
The platform, according to Reuters, was claimed to have played an important role in the spread of hate speech when Rohingya refugees were fleeing their homeland to Bangladesh.
Other countries have made attempts to combat trolling and fake news, New Zealand included.
In 2015, New Zealand made cyberbullying illegal in an attempt to curb teen suicide. The law, passed in tandem with an amendment to the Crimes Act 1961, was designed to ensure that cyberbullies would face up to two years’ imprisonment.
‘Fake news’ conviction In April this year, the Malaysian courts convicted its first person under a new fake news law. The Danish citizen was charged after he posted a video claiming that police were not quick to act after receiving distress calls regarding the shooting of a Palestinian lecturer.
Questions regarding free speech have circulated since the Basil reportedly made the announcement.
Only 11 percent of the Papua New Guinean population have access to the internet. The site, for those with the ability to use it, has become a news source in a place where media freedom is increasingly threatened.
While Freedom House’s most recent report on press freedom says that the press in Papua New Guinea is free, the organisation is quick to note that this freedom has become worse over recent years.
Freedom of speech, information and the press are all guaranteed and inalienable rights in Papua New Guinean law due to Section 46 of the country’s constitution.
What has caused problems, however, for the press is political pressure and violence. Over the years, journalists have been “detained without charge, and their video footage was destroyed”.
Three female journalists were sexually assaulted in 2014, the report states.
Reporters Without Borders also reported police violence against journalists in 2016. It said in a media statement that one NBC journalist had been assaulted by three police officers until another officer intervened. Others had been attacked by a plainclothes officer.
Facebook as news source In the era of fake news, social media plays a huge role in how the people get their news. According to Pew Research, two-thirds of American adults got their news through social media in 2017.
“Facebook is… being cited as an important hub for news, and the audience is larger than other news websites with 53 percent of weekly users reporting the use of online social media compared to the two main newspapers’ websites,” the report said.
Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director of Reporters Without Borders, said that blocking Facebook “would deprive nearly a million internet users” from news and information.
“Instead of resorting to censorship, the Communications Minister should encourage online platforms to be more transparent and responsible about content regulation.”
There is still concern about the upcoming APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting in Port Moresby in November and a possible Facebook ban’s impact.
Paul Barker, director of the Institute of National Affairs, told the Post-Courier “It would be a travesty if PNG sought to close down Facebook during the APEC month… as it would be both an attack on embracing technology, undermining the information era and mechanisms for accountability, but also damaging business and welfare.”
Jessica Marshall is an AUT student journalist on the postgraduate Asia Pacific Journalism course.
Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Does freedom of speech extend to far-right voices?
New Zealand has largely escaped the escalating debates and conflicts occurring in the US and elsewhere about whether to allow or ban offensive political speech. Until now. Two controversial Canadian speakers who have cancelled their NZ appearance after being banned from Auckland Council venues have ignited debates over “hate speech” and “freedom of speech”.
Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux had been due to appear next month at the Bruce Mason Centre in Auckland. But on Friday, the Auckland City Council, which owns the venue, pulled the plug on the event, due to “security concerns” involving the “health and safety” of the presenters, staff and patrons of the event. This is all covered by Anna Bracewell-Worrall in her news report, Auckland ‘alt-right’ event cancelled due to ‘health and safety’.
The article explains that the issue was sparked when “Auckland Peace Action (APA) called on the Government to not allow the speakers entry to New Zealand.” The group also threatened to disrupt the event, saying: “If they come here, we will confront them on the streets. If they come, we will blockade entry to their speaking venue”.
Mayor Phil Goff fronted the issue, and explained the decision: “I just think we’ve got no obligation at all – in a city that’s multicultural, inclusive, embraces people of all faiths and ethnicities – to provide a venue for hate speech by people that want to abuse and insult others, either their faith or their ethnicity”.
Event promoter, David Pellowe, then announced that the show was cancelled, saying “there were no other venues available at this late stage” – see the Herald’s Mayor bans controversial Canadian pair from talking in Auckland Council venues. He complains that Phil Goff’s decision is political, and that “Far from being willing to engage in a robust contest of ideas, he finds it far simpler to shut down any ideas he disagrees with.”
A victory against “hate speech”?
The other group attempting to prevent Southern and Molyneux from speaking was the New Zealand Federation of Islam Associations, who say the pair are spreading hate about Muslims. The Federation has been lobbying the Minister of Immigration and Immigration New Zealand to deny them entry to the country.
Federation president Hazim Arafeh explained that one of the two, Lauren Southern, should not be afforded the right to free speech, because she “abuses her right of freedom of speech. She’s just going to give a talk in which she’s just going to insult all of us… I don’t think insulting Muslims comes under free speech, that’s an abuse of freedom of speech” – see Emma Hatton’s article, Controversial speaker Lauren Southern ‘going to insult all of us’ – Islamic community leader.
This article cites Massey University’s Paul Spoonley categorising the pair as being “white supremacists” and their message as “hate speech”. But he is also reported as believing that “banning people entry to New Zealand would need to meet a high threshold and the decision warranted a public discussion.”
Saziah Bashir has an interesting opinion piece in favour of the clampdown on the Canadians, saying in her RNZ item that Southern’s “actions are actually physically and emotionally harmful” – see: Hate speech more than just ‘an unpopular opinion’. Therefore, any decision to deny them entry to New Zealand is quite straightforward and uncomplicated, especially because their presence here “risks the safety of an entire community” – Muslims.
She argues the “right to freedom of expression is not unfettered”, and because Southern and Molyneux have other ways to distribute their message (YouTube), their rights to freedom of speech would not be harmed by any ban on them.
Some of these debates about hate speech might sound esoteric, but for Oscar Kightley it’s very straight forward, because the concept of freedom of speech should include the freedom to ban people from coming to speak to others: “Of course, freedom of speech is an important principle, but that isn’t one way. Surely people have that same freedom to have their own reactions to any speech. Including the freedom to say: yeah nah, you can’t actually come into New Zealand and say that stuff” – see: We have the freedom not to stand such divisive speech.
Suppressing “free speech”?
The decision to ban the Canadians from council venues is A triumph for left-wing bigotry and intolerance according to Karl du Fresne, who says “July 6 was the day when extreme left-wing bigotry and intolerance triumphed over the democratic values”. He says that “Goff has betrayed us all” by capitulating to “fringe extremists like Valerie Morse” of Auckland Peace Action. It “sends a signal that all the extreme left has to do in future to deny a platform to people it doesn’t like is to threaten violent disruption.”
He also draws attention to the “irony” that Valerie Morse has previously escaped conviction for “burning a New Zealand flag in a protest gesture at an Anzac Day service in Wellington in 2007” because the Supreme Court ruled – rightly in du Fresne’s view – that “Freedom of expression quite properly allows New Zealanders to engage in acts that other people find deeply objectionable.”
He argues we should be, and are, robust enough to deal with fringe views: “New Zealand is by world standards a remarkably tolerant and moderate society, and stolidly resistant to inflammation by extremists of any stripe. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a robust democracy that is perfectly capable of being exposed to rancid opinions without being swayed.”
He argues the threshold for banning something should be incredibly high, and this has not been reached: “Unfortunately, being insulted is just something people have to put up with in a free and democratic society, and our Supreme Court is on record (in Brooker v Police) as saying so. We have a right to freedom of speech in New Zealand, which covers not just the right of these racists to speak, but also the right of their racist audience to listen. Restricting that right pre-emptively requires a very high test: basically an announced intention on the part of the speaker to incite a riot. If that test isn’t met, there’s no justifiable reason to prevent them from speaking.”
The Dominion Post has a similar view, publishing an editorial that says a healthy society has to put up with some offensive views, and that “Without the possibility of offence we would be a bland, totalitarian state devoid of interest, imagination and ideas” – see: Tolerance is a virtue.
It argues a ban on such views are counterproductive, as it “plays into the hands of those seeking publicity and profile.” Furthermore, we need to distinguish between what is “truly damaging and hateful” and that which is “merely offensive and comfortably dismissed”. The editorial believes that Southern and Molyneux fall into the latter category.
There’s also the problem of giving politicians such as Phil Goff the power to make the decision on which political views to ban. This is the argument put by David Farrar who says “the Mayor now personally decides whose speech is acceptable, and can use an Auckland Council facility. Governments tend to own many large speaking venues so this in fact does massively restrict the ability of someone to do a public session” – see: Phil Goff the new commissar of speech.
Farrar wonders if future speakers who allegedly stir up religious tensions will also be banned: “now Goff has unilaterally announced his own test, let’s keep him to it. If you ever see a booking for a Council facility which has a speaker from an organisation with a history of anti-semitism or supporting terrorism, then make sure we all know so we can demand Goff be even handed.”
Finally, could Auckland ratepayers end up with a costly bill from the decision to cancel this event? Blogger No Right Turn has just blogged to say that the decision looks to be illegal, as it breaches the Bill of Rights Act, which includes “the right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of political opinion” – see: The cost of a free and democratic society II. He also says the decision sets a dangerous precedent: “Because if we let the mayor of Auckland decide what speech is acceptable in public facilities, then a future mayor may decide that they don’t like speech that we approve of. Like union meetings, or speeches in favour of reforming drug laws, or political movements against landlords and the rentier economy. Or speeches in favour of racial justice”.
Oro Governor Garry Juffa says the people of PNG find it “frightening” and “alarming” that the Papua New Guinea government is making a move towards shutting down their opportunity to have access to information and to speak freely.
He says the media freedom issue is not just about Facebook – it is about “fundamental democracy” and free speech in the country.
“This criticism that they [givernment MPs] are complaining about, they are basically complaining about is their feelings of being hurt because of something that has offended them or has demeaned them in some ways, but this comes with the territory,” Juffa has said in thePost-Courier.
“When you are a leader you going to get criticised, that’s normal, [US President] Donald Trump gets criticised you know, the Australian Prime Minister gets criticised and they take it, they don’t go and refer these matters to the Parliamentary Privileges Committee in their countries, they don’t cry about it and demand apologies,” he said.
“We should be feeling hurt about the fact that we don’t have medicines in our aid posts and hospitals, we should be feeling hurt about the fact that our schools are shutting down because they are not getting funds they need, that our teachers are not being paid, we should be getting hurt about the fact that our economy is taking such a nose dive that ordinary Papua New Guineans are losing their homes, they are losing their business, they are not being paid, people are losing their jobs, these are the things that we need to be hurt about and expressing our concerns about.
‘World looking’ “But we have taken three days of Parliament over an issue because someone in Parliament is being hurt about what someone said about them, it’s quite ridiculous and in fact the world is now looking at Papua New Guinea and thinking what is going on in that country.
“This is not about Facebook.
“This is about the freedom of our people to have the opportunity to say what they want, I may not agree with what you say but we must always fight to protect your right to say it because that’s the fundamental hallmark of democracy.
“We are supposed to host APEC, I mean APEC nations that are coming here that promotes and subscribe to democracy will be aghast, will be shocked that here is a country that is deliberately moving to snuff out or stop the opportunity for its people to dissent.
“The Opposition walk-out from Parliament was a demonstration of our disgust at the fact that the government is deliberately moving against our peoples rights to express themselves.”
A near confrontation on the floor of Parliament on Friday, with the Papua New Guinea Opposition walking out in protest over the referral of Madang MP Bryan Kramer, to the Parliamentary Privileges Committee following a Facebook posting. Video: EMTV News
OPINION:By Keith Jackson in Noosa
Samuel H Basil, the man who might ban Papua New Guineans from Facebook, was not always such a stern opponent of the social media platform he now despises – a platform used by nearly a million of his fellow citizens.
Indeed it was only 18 months ago that Basil – who is now Communications Minister – posted on his own Facebook page: “FB users in PNG have used the medium to their advantage exposing corruption in government…. Everything is changing; people are taking their bloggers seriously and their politicians as comedians.”
Then last week, having defected not only from his political base but seemingly from his former progressive and liberal ideas, Basil felt able to announce that Facebook could be banned for a month for some mysterious “research” – and maybe disposed of permanently, perhaps to be replaced by Basbook.
Communications Minister Sam Basil with Prime Minister Peter O’Neill – worried about the wellbeing of PNG or just politicians feelings being hurt? Image: PNG Attitude
An immediate worldwide flambé of curiosity then thrust the story into the news stratosphere, some journalists linking it with Papua New Guinea’s APEC forum later this year. Basil seemed to back away, then push the idea forward again so by week’s end what the government intends to do was very much up in the air.
But one thing did remain constant (see more stories on PNG Attitude) – the desire of most national politicians to get rid of the dreadful FB thing that is causing them so much grief with increasingly savvy and critical voters.
Among the small group of politicians fighting to keep Facebook alive is Madang MP Bryan Kramer who was cheeky enough (in a Facebook post of course) to allude to Basil in a headline which asked, “Did dumb just get dumber?”.
Parliamentary walkout Affecting to have been taken aback, in Parliament the majority of members voted to refer Kramer to the Privileges Committee whereupon Opposition Leader Patrick Pruaitch and 23 other members walked out of the chamber in protest.
The committee will decide if Kramer’s post brought Parliament into disrepute.
Opposition Madang MP Bryan Kramer … controversial statement made outside Parliament on Facebook. Image: EMTV News
However, there is something of a problem – the committee is meant to investigate breaches of parliamentary privilege and Kramer’s statement was not made in Parliament.
“I think what is frightening and what is alarming for the people of PNG is a deliberate move towards shutting down their opportunities to have access to information and to also speak freely,” Pruaitch said.
“They [politicians] are complaining about their feelings being hurt.”
Meanwhile, in far away Uganda, Parliament has just passed a new social media tax which will charge a daily fee of 200 Ugandan shillings (about K1.75) to anyone using apps Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. That’s a hefty sum in a country where the average person earns K6 a day.
But, as with Sam Basil’s ill thought through proposition for Papua New Guinea, it is unclear in Uganda how social media use will be monitored and how the money will be collected.
Digging themselves deeper holes in their desire to rein in social media seems to be a developing political trait.
This article is republished by Asia Pacific Report with permission and was originally published by Keith Jackson’s blog PNG Attitude.
Papua New Guinean students in China protesting over a separate issue. A file picture of the Shenyang PNG Students Association members protesting over the shooting of students at the University of PNG in 2016. Image: Loop PNG
By Melisha Yafoi in Beijing
Students studying in Beijing, China, have described the move by Papua New Guinea’s Communications Minister Sam Basil to suspend Facebook for one month as “irrelevant” and damaging for education communications.
The students in a forum have expressed disappointment that there are more pressing issues that the government needs to address yet it is concerned about legislating freedom of speech for the people.
They said that being outside the country they were able to read information and connecting with family back home as many of the people do not have other social media platforms other than Facebook.
They also said through Facebook, leaders were made accountable to their actions and were condemned publicly for their wrongdoing.
“Some people abuse it but the majority use this to express themselves. Why is government so worried about it. They have better things to do than wasting time to fb issue,” Beijing PNG students vice-president Samuel Ray said.
“The real issues are out there. We have police brutality on the rise, car theft, rural urban drift, poverty, deteriorating infrastructure both school, road and heath services. Drug shortage, TFF policy not working well etc.”
It was also raised that it is obvious that the people have already lost their trust in the government. As a result there would be no positive result coming from this temporary suspension.
‘Top shots on toes’ “Most politicians, top government officials and top shots are always on their toes for being exposed of under the table deals,” the students said.
“Our national media (with due respect to the hard working media team) can sometimes be compromised by the government. Thus leaves social media, with no restrictions on people on what they post. A national social network isn’t a solution. Data of citizens shouldn’t rest in the hands of privileged individuals to manipulate.”
An international relations student suggested that PNG’s Communications and Information Technology Department should focus more on things like how to improve network services around the country and work on helping PNG catch up to the digital era rather than trying to keep PNG away from it.
She said shutting down Facebook will not solve anything and trying to analyse its positive or negative impacts was a waste of time and resources.
“The government, instead of choosing to totally shut down Facebook, should innovate ideas on establishing appropriate alternatives especially on the imposition of penalties on those abusive users of this social media platform,” another student said.
Melisha Yafoiis a contributor to the Post-Courier.
Vanuatu Daily Post editor Jane Joshua, a journalist who has set new standards for social justice and human rights reporting in her country, has been awarded the Hanson Mataskelekele Award for leadership among women.
“We are immensely proud to congratulate Jane,” said the Daily Post media group director Dan McGarry.
Joshua became editor of the Daily Post in February after working for the newspaper for many years.
“From the beginning, she demonstrated her top-flight journalistic skills. Her reporting has provided an essential addition to the public dialogue,” said McGarry.
“Her reporting of human rights abuses among the country’s prison population contributed to fundamental changes in how our incarcerated population are treated.”
Outcry led to reforms An outcry following this commission of inquiry report led to the creation of a Maritime Regulator and the current wholesale reform of the maritime sector.
Her work as associate editor had recently contributed significantly to the Daily Post company’s expanded radio news and current affairs programming, and its burgeoning presence on social media.
The Daily Post news group is widely regarded as the most reputable source of information and news about Vanuatu in social media today.
“Our social media news coverage has reached as many as 120,000 people in a single day,” said McGarry.
Jane Joshua has written nearly 270 front page stories in the last four years alone.
Her elevation to the rank of editor made her one of few women in the top rank of the news media establishment in the Pacific islands. She is the first woman to occupy the role of editor at this newspaper.