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), 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 have worked with others to try to damage the 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.
When political leaders resort to such tactics, others follow. The most recent example is Eleanor Catton the Booker Prize-winning novelist who has been vilified and abused for raising questions about the integrity of government in New Zealand.
Like ‘dirty politics’ and the Whale Oil blog, this style of debate is not a cause of fragility in democracy in New Zealand, but a symptom. As Seneca said, ‘All cruelty springs from weakness’ – and history tells us that this kind of verbal bullying goes along with waning freedom and abuses of power.
It is not just outspoken individuals who are at risk. Institutions that are intended to be the bulwarks of our democracy are being undermined. Since the 1980s, the civil service, which is supposed to offer informed, impartial advice to government, has been brought under ministerial control, and instead of serving civil society, now largely serves its political masters.
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. Even those regulatory bodies designed to provide protection for the privacy and human rights of citizens seem intimidated to assert their responsibilities or give voice to injustices.
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 (protestors at sea, and family care-givers for the disabled); and by setting up politically appointed panels to bypass the Environment Court.
Independent statutory bodies are brought to heel if they criticise the government by threatening or removing their funding, or by cancelling their powers. Examples include 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 channel research and teaching into politically directed channels, by constraints on freedom of speech for CRI scientists, and by recent attempts to control universities by making every 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 protect these liberties for their children and grandchildren. They’d say, ‘I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’
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. Je suis Eleanor would be a good place to start!