As we ushered in the New Year - basking in the sun and spending time with friends and family - I imagine the principles of freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of religion were not top of mind. Until we were confronted with the brutal murder of 12 staff, including cartoonists in the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, that is.
What seemed a distant issue suddenly became more real as we watched the manhunt live from our living rooms and many of us madly discussed the importance and possible limitations of free speech and other human rights. Few human rights are absolute. Free speech comes with responsibility, but it’s a critical component in an open democratic society.
Not only is it a worrying issue on the other side of the globe. It touches us much closer to home. And it should be defended.
The Paris shootings came in the wake of the one year anniversary, on 29 December 2014, of the imprisonment of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt, which represents an insidious abuse of press freedom that has reverberated around the world.
One, Peter Greste was released in early February. However, while his colleagues were also recently released, they face an uncertain retrial on 8 March.
Al Jazeera has made a name for itself with its gritty investigative journalism which aligns with the station’s motto “the opinion and the other opinion.” Al Jazeera lives up to the ideal of the state-owned broadcaster which champions press freedom as a public good - an ideal which is becoming an endangered species in the global media, including in our very own country where public service broadcasting has been eroded.
In June 2014, I moved a motion without notice in Parliament condemning the imprisonment of the Al Jazeera journalists, and a further motion in February 2015. The government supported both motions, but since then has been decidedly inactive about any further protests in the wake of the journalists’ imprisonment.
Instead this week John Key chose to send our troops to Iraq, without a UN mandate and without a Parliamentary vote. We have an obligation to join other governments to oppose their imprisonment which challenges the universal right to report on conflict; integral to a working democracy.
Furthermore, as politicians across the world have on the one hand covered themselves in the flag of free speech and freedom of the press in response to the tragic murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, many are simultaneously moving to stifle these same rights they claim to be championing.
Australia is in the midst of a whirlwind of counter-terror laws that provide no protection for journalists or whistleblowers, puts the computers of media outlets under surveillance, and allows the stifling of reporting on the work of the spy agencies. As Chris Warren, the Australian Federal Secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance said: “In recent months the assaults on press freedom have stepped up… The [Australian] government has turned its attention to public broadcasting, demonstrating an extraordinary degree of government interference in editorial independence.”
New Zealand is far from immune from the chilling erosion of our freedoms. We can only hope we don’t follow in the footsteps of our neighbours across the Tasman with further surveillance measures.
Freedom to believe, freedom to report, and freedom to express are all fundamental tenets of a working democracy. In our small part of the world there are many long-time groups that hold dear those values, such as Lions, Rotary, RSAs along with newer ones like Generation Zero. Their voices could be powerful in asking our government to stand up for what’s right. New Zealand should aspire to be a world leader in press freedom, clearly stating that the stifling of the press should never be condoned, and re-asserting our independence as a humanitarian, peace-keeping nation.
Clare Curran is Labour's ICT and broadcasting spokesperson and MP for Dunedin South.
source: data archive