A day of irony, intrigue and outrage: SFC, NBR, SFO, “WTF?”

October 20, 2010

Funny things coincidences, they tend to happen when you least expect it.

So today, coincidentally, New Zealand is in the top ten in the global media freedom index sponsored by Reporters Without Borders and today, co-coincidentally, the National Business Review has been bullied into handing over files, notes, documents and recordings to the Serious Fraud Office under threat of draconian fines and expensive legal hassles.

If the SFO knows about any incriminating documents NBR journalist Matt Nippert may have received from his sources, surely the nation’s premiere business crime unit could go to the South Canterbury Finance principals and others involved in the investigation and just ask for them.

Or, perhaps issue a warrant to search premises where originals or copies might be stored. It’s not a good look for the SFO to be standing over journalists just trying to do their jobs, rather than investigating the source of the alleged wrong-doing.

An intriguing thing media freedom: you don’t really know you had it until someone tries to take it away.

It’s an outrage that we pat ourselves on the back with one hand and poke out our own eyes with a burnt stick at the same time.

The intimidation of NBR is a salutory reminder that there are no shield laws in New Zealand and that the ethical principle of source confidentiality – for the protection of journalists and whistleblowers – is trumped by the law.

This is an ethico-legal paradox that won’t go away without some legislative fix. I don’t think shield laws solve all such problems, but well drafted and implemented they can be part of the protection that journalists need to do good investigative work like Matt’s done on the South Canterbury / Hyatt Regency hotel story so far.

I think the situation is paraphrased nicely in this quote from Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-Francois Julliard:

“The defence of media freedom continues to be a battle, a battle of vigilance in the democracies of old Europe and a battle against oppression and injustice in the totalitarian regimes still scattered across the globe.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that New Zealand is a totalitarian regime along the lines of, say, Fiji or Burma, for example, but the chilling effect of the threats against Matt Nippert, Nevil Gibson and the NBR are only a velvet glove away from the iron fist.

We always have to be on guard against police and thieves.