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Media freedom to report local authority elections

25 June 2001 Media Statement

Newspaper Publishers Association assured of media freedom to report local authority elections

Local Government Minister Sandra Lee said today the news media would be free to report on this year’s local authority elections without any suggestion of a need to seek candidates’ approval for any reported comments about themselves.

She said an independent Queens Counsel review of a Crown Law opinion had confirmed that the new Local Electoral Act did not place any gag on the media reporting on local elections, as had previously been alleged by ACT MP Stephen Franks.

Ms Lee said a senior local government policy official from the Department of Internal Affairs had briefed representatives of the Newspaper Publishers Association today on the legal advice she had received. She said this legal advice had justified her initial view that Mr Franks’ allegations were a beat-up by the big spending ACT Party. She said the allegations had to be considered in the context that ACT was reported by the Sunday Star Times in April to have been secretly bankrolled by a group of New Zealand’s richest men for its 1996 parliamentary election campaign.

Ms Lee said ACT was clearly concerned about any attempts to ensure a level playing field for candidates at elections whether at the local or central government level. She said for ACT to talk about a gag on the media in relation to the promotion of candidates was simply a smokescreen, aimed at undermining the objective of limiting electoral expenditure by individual candidates to ensure equal opportunities for all regardless of their access to financial resources.

She said Mr Franks claimed that section 135 of the Local Electoral Act required the media to get the consent of election candidates before commenting on particular candidates as part of their election reporting. Ms Lee said this was never the intention, and had now been shown not to be the case.

Ms Lee said that Wellington Queens Counsel Dr George Barton, had concluded that a case brought against any person responsible for a publication of any news or comments about an election, which is seen to promote a particular candidate without that candidate’s written authority, “would almost certainly be bound to fail”.

She said this was because the section in question had to be read in the context of the whole Local Electoral Act, and especially section 113 of the Act that provided an express exclusion for publication of any news or comments about an election by the news media. She said Section 135 was simply an offence provision relating to the substantive provisions on advertising by candidates under section 113.

Ms Lee said she was concerned, however, that despite these authoritative legal opinions, some political groups or individuals might still attempt to make political capital out of the issue and generate uncertainty. She said this would create an unwelcome distraction for local electoral officers at a time when they needed to be focussed on implementing the new legislation including the provisions relating to limits on candidates’ expenditure which are new for local authority elections.

Consequently, Ms Lee said, the Government had decided to hold back the coming into effect of section 135. This section would not apply for the local authority elections to be held in October this year. However she said an early opportunity would be taken to clarify explicitly in the legislation that the exclusion in section 113 also applies in respect of section 135.

Ms Lee said this would mean that there would be no specific offence and penalty provision for the upcoming elections, relating to advertising on behalf of a candidate without that candidate’s approval. However, the general prohibition on this activity with explicit exclusions for the media, under section 113, would still apply. She said the integrity of the electoral process was far more important than political gamesmanship, so she had decided that absolute certainty about the relevant legislative provisions would be paramount.

ENDS


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