Editorial: Spying on journalist an unjustified attack

Last updated 05:00 02/07/2013

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OPINION: News organisations like The Dominion Post have an obvious interest in objecting to state surveillance of their activities. Newspaper pages would consist of little more than press releases if journalists could not assure their sources of confidentiality.

However, the revelation that the inquiry into the leak of a report on the Government Communications Security Bureau was able to use swipe-card data to track the movements of the journalist who broke the story should be of concern to more than just the news media. It is not just the media's freedom of operation that is being attacked, but the public's right to know.

"News," opined legendary British newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe in the early part of last century, "is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising."

What held true then, holds true now. Simply because information is embarrassing or discomforting to those in positions of power is not reason to withhold it.

In the GCSB case, The Dominion Post's Andrea Vance broke no laws and betrayed no confidences. She did what journalists have been doing since printing presses first rolled. She obtained information that was being kept from the public (in this case till a politically convenient time could be found for its release) and she made it available to readers so they could form their own opinions.

It was no more appropriate for the Parliamentary Service to hand over records showing her movements in and out of Parliament than it would have been to hand over data on constituents visiting their MPs.

Indeed it is highly debatable whether the inquiry should have been supplied with information on the movements of UnitedFuture's Peter Dunne, the MP suspected of leaking the report. Whose interests were being served? Is a prime minister who fears a coup now able to demand electronic records showing the movements of suspected plotters?

To his credit, Prime Minister John Key has expressed his disappointment that Vance's records were handed over. However, that should not be the end of the matter. A clear statement of principle is required.

The swipe-card system that enabled parliamentary authorities to record Vance's movements and the cameras that dot the parliamentary precinct were installed to enhance security. They were not installed to allow snoopers to spy on ministers, MPs, journalists or visitors to Parliament.

People are entitled to their privacy. In the wake of September 11, Western societies have reluctantly accepted some restrictions on personal freedoms, but people should not be spied on just in case they do something wrong.

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The Stasi, the East German agency that created an extensive network of collaborators and informants to spy on East German citizens during the Cold War would, no doubt, have welcomed the technological advances that made it possible to track Vance's movements without stationing men in trenchcoats outside Parliament's entrances. The rest of us, however, should be extremely worried by unwarranted surveillance.

- The Dominion Post

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