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Minister’s Media Gag Must Be Reversed

Sunday 27th May 2001

ACT Justice spokesman Stephen Franks is urging news media to fight a newly-passed law which will limit freedom of speech and could cause huge problems for newspapers and broadcasters covering local body elections in a few months time.

“Legislation giving effect to a ban on publishing anything that could be seen as promotion of a candidate in local elections was forced through Parliament under urgency last Thursday, largely unnoticed, while media were preoccupied by the Budget.

“Section 128 of the Local Electoral Act says that it is an offence to publish or broadcast material promoting a candidate without the written authority of the candidate or their agent.

Anybody found guilty of this offence can be fined up to $1,000. This provision doesn’t relate to advertisements, which are governed by separate provisions.

“In effect this means you can only publish or broadcast comments promoting a candidate if they’ve been allowed to censor it. Also, while the letter of the law indicates that you are free to publish critical commentary on candidates you could also probably be ensnared by this legislation if your commentary can be taken as an indirect attempt to promote candidates not criticised.

“If not amended, this legislation will place draconian restrictions on our country’s newspapers and broadcasters during the forthcoming round of local body elections.

“I’m so concerned about this matter that I’ve written to every newspaper editor in the country, urging them to take action against this legislation. This issue should concern ratepayers and any New Zealanders who want to protect the freedom of robust debate through the media. Most of us welcome the expression of opinion by experienced journalists who have to cover council meetings as long as its clearly labelled opinion. They will have valid and informed views on who is performing well and who isn’t.

“It’s possible that Minister Sandra Lee, who pushed this Act through, didn’t intend these consequences from section 128. However, I tried to get this removed at select committee and during the committee stages of the debate but the Minister declined even to speak or explain what she intended by this law.

“The worrying thing is that while there is currently no equivalent to section 128 in the law covering General Elections, we know that officials are working on major changes to that electoral law and that the Government wants similar rules for national and local elections. Addition of a similar clause into General Election legislation would cause countrywide chaos.

“Freedom of speech is an essential ingredient in any democratic society. This new law must be amended immediately to protect this fundamental right,” Stephen Franks said.


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