Erosion of democratic rights

UNIVERSAL RIGHT: A man holds a giant pencil as he takes part in a French citizens solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) ...

UNIVERSAL RIGHT: A man holds a giant pencil as he takes part in a French citizens solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris, France.

New Zealand needs to look to its own record on freedom of speech, writes Dame Anne Salmond.

In the wake of the shooting of cartoonists and journalists in Paris, political leaders in New Zealand have expressed shock and horror, and their support for those who uphold freedom of expression in other countries.

What about freedom of speech and thought at home, however?


Over the past decade or so, politicians seeking to uphold their own power have abused democratic freedoms in New Zealand. Journalists including Jon Stephenson (for reporting on New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan), Andrea Vance (over a suspected leak of a report about the GCSB spy agency), and Nicky Hager (for exposing scurrilous relationships between senior politicians and muck-raking bloggers) have been intimidated and attacked.


While our leaders do not shoot people, they work with others to try to ruin the lives and careers of those who disagree with them. The means may be different, but the intent is the same. One way or another, their critics (however valid their points of view might be) must be silenced.


It is not just outspoken individuals who are at risk. Institutions that are the bulwarks of our democracy have been undermined.

Since the 1980s, the civil service, which is supposed to offer informed, impartial advice to politicians, has been brought under ministerial control, and instead of serving civil society now largely serves its political masters.

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The freedom of the press has been compromised, for instance in the wake of the teapot tape scandal, when newspaper offices were raided in an effort to prevent the publication of those recordings, or when improper pressure is brought to bear on journalists and media outlets for partisan political purposes.


While H L Mencken defined good journalism as "afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted", much journalism in New Zealand now does the opposite.


The independence of the judiciary and the rule of law have been eroded by the passage of a stream of acts that breach the Bill of Rights; by removing legal protections from citizens for economic or fiscal gain (protesters at sea, and family caregivers for the disabled, for instance); and by setting up politically appointed panels to bypass the Environment Court, for example.


Independent statutory bodies are brought to heel if they criticise the Government, by threatening or removing their funding, or by cancelling their powers (such as the current attempts to bring the work of the Human Rights Commission under ministerial control, and to cancel the positions of the Equal Opportunities Commissioner and the Race Relations Conciliator).


Freedom of thought and inquiry in universities and Crown Research Institutes, supposedly protected by statute, has been assailed by funding mechanisms that direct research and teaching into politically directed channels, by constraints on freedom of speech for Crown Research Institute scientists, and by recent attempts to control universities by making every University Council member (whether appointed by the crown or not) accountable to the minister.


Radical extensions of the powers of the SIS and the GCSB to intrude into the private lives of citizens are justified by arguing a need to defend New Zealanders against terrorist attacks, although these powers have been abused for political gain.

As the Paris shootings demonstrate, such actions only serve the purposes of the terrorists themselves, who aim to destroy democratic freedoms.


The only proper way for New Zealanders and their leaders to show their abhorrence of terrorism is to resolutely uphold freedom of speech and thought, and to defy all attempts to undermine those rights, whether by subterfuge, violence or abuse of power.

In my father's generation, many Kiwis were prepared to lay down their lives to defend these liberties for their children and grandchildren.


In France, many have declared "Je suis Charlie", identifying themselves with the cartoonists and journalists who were shot in the terrorist attacks, and promising that they did not die in vain. They have vowed to defend freedom of expression in their own country.

We should do the same.


- Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Auckland. She was the 2013 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.



 - The Dominion Post


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