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Local Electoral Act does not impose a 'media gag'

3 June 2001 (for immediate release) Media Statement

Legal advice: Local Electoral Act does not impose a 'media gag'

Local Government Minister Sandra Lee says a Crown Law Office opinion has confirmed the view of her officials that the Local Electoral Act does not impose a media gag.

"It was important to clarify the situation," Ms Lee said, "even though my officials believed a media gag interpretation of one section of the legislation by ACT MP Stephen Franks was not only 'misleading' but 'erroneous'.

"The Crown Law Office has advised that section 135 of the Local Electoral Act, (which was section 128 of the Bill before it was given the Royal Assent) effectively does not apply to the publication or broadcast of any news or comment, because section 113 'prevails'.

"Section 113, on electoral expenditure for candidate advertising, contains a subsection that states:
(5) This section does not restrict the publication of any news or comments relating to an election in a newspaper or other periodical, or on the Internet, or in any other medium of electronic communication accessible by the public, or in a radio or television broadcast made by a broadcaster within the meaning of section 2 of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

"I am now assured that the Department of Internal Affairs has a sound legal basis for asserting that news media could not be successfully prosecuted for exercising their free speech rights under the Local Electoral Act," Ms Lee said.

"Freedom of expression is such a fundamental value in a democratic society like ours that there should be no room for a suggestion that a restriction on freedom of expression has gone beyond such reasonable limits as can be clearly justified in a free and democratic society."

Ms Lee said section 135 of the new Local Electoral Act, dealing with unauthorised expenditure, made it an offence carrying a maximum fine of $1000 if any person "publishes or broadcasts any material promoting the election of any candidate without the written authority of the candidate or the candidate's agent".

She said the provision was aimed at preventing a candidate running one campaign where funding and support resources were open to scrutiny, and a second parallel campaign involving so-called supporters who produced material promoting the candidate using secret funding sources.

The Minister has now decided to call for independent legal advice on the issue, "to make doubly sure of the situation", and she will be offering the Newspaper Publishers Association an officials' briefing this week.

"It is clear that ACT is desperate to discredit any provisions in the new legislation that threaten future big-spending campaigns it might want to wage in favour of local authority election candidates sympathetic to its cause," Ms Lee said.

"This is consistent with a report in the Sunday Star Times in April that a group of New Zealand's richest men secretly bankrolled ACT's 1996 election campaign in a scheme set up to avoid disclosing their identity and the amount of their donations."


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