Tuesday, February 02, 2010

No freedom of speech in South Australia

One of the ground rules of elections in New Zealand, widely supported by everyone but the loonies in ACT, is that if you want to advertise, you have to disclose your identity through a "promoter statement". The intent of the law is to ensure a level electoral playing field, preventing circumvention of spending limits as well as anonymous attack advertising. But the law applies strictly to advertising; it has never (even under the much maligned Electoral Finance Act) applied to political commentary by media organisations or individuals.

In South Australia, that's no longer true. Last year, they passed a law extending disclosure requirements to

material consisting of, or containing a commentary on, any candidate or political party, or the issues being submitted to electors, in written form, in a journal published in electronic form on the Internet or by radio or television or broadcast on the Internet
(Section 116 of the Electoral Act 1985 (South Australia))

The target of the law was bloggers, who the South Australian government regards as obnoxious rabble, but it also extends to comments posted on media websites, to op-ed columns (but not editorials themselves, as they are "leading articles"), and to web broadcasts of political talkshows. Translated to New Zealand, both the blogs and newspaper columns of leading political commentators such as Colin Espiner, Audrey Young, Colin James and Chris Trotter would certainly be covered, as would web broadcasts of any TV news programme containing anything other than a bare recitation of facts (which means anything by Guyon Espiner or Duncan Garner), as would RadioNZ's regular comment slots on Nine Till Noon or The Panel. Big media will just disclose, but ordinary people, who rightly or wrongly fear retribution from political activists, will be intimidated into silence. Its already shut down In A Strange Land's plans to blog about the election, and it looks like it will affect larvatus Prodeo and other Aussie political blogs as well. The net result: the people silenced around election time.

The good news is that a right to political speech is one of the few human rights recognised in the Australian Constitution (even if it is only implied). So there's a good chance of this law failing a constitutional challenge. The question is whether it can be overturned before the election campaign begins.