Monday, August 05, 2013

More military intimidation

Last week we learned that our defence forces had been spying on kiwi journalists in Afghanistan. It turns out that's not the only thing they're doing - they've also been intimidating kiwis into removing tweets which undermined their PR message that everything was OK:

The Timaru man was working for a private company in Afghanistan's Bamiyan province at the time and had only eight Twitter followers - two of them journalists.

Hussey said a friend, also in Bamiyan, contacted him on August 19, 2012, to tell him there was a gunfight happening 2km away and "not to go up there to the valley on your motorbike".

Hussey tweeted : "Poor Kiwis under fire in Bamiyan :-(".

Just 20 minutes later he was contacted by a member of the NZDF, told to remove the tweet and instructed to attend a meeting immediately at the NZDF base in Bamiyan where he was told he was a "security risk".


"I was told that there would be widespread panic from the families of soldiers back in New Zealand if it got out," Hussey said.

Firstly, there's absolutely no statutory authority for this - NZDF does not have any legal power to censor people's tweets, let alone demand people meet with them. Secondly it is fairly clearly driven by PR reasons - a desire to keep news about their role in Afghanistan "on message" as not being a combat mission. Thirdly, it seems to be a pretty obvious violation of the BORA-affirmed right to freedom of expression (which applies to the NZDF whereever they are in the world) by using the implied power and authority of the state to silence someone. NZDF has to take extra care here - as an organisation with uniforms and guns, their "requests" are by default seen as an exercise of state power, even when they are not backed by any legal authority. And in the circumstances described above - immediate, having harassed people in New Zealand to learn contact details, with an "interview" in an armed camp - they are simply intimidation.

While Hussey's tweet was public, I don't think I'm the only one to find the idea that NZDF is monitoring what we say about them... disquieting. Their job is to defend us, not spy on us, and our attitudes towards them and their mission are something they must simply accept. When they try and manipulate them with intimidation, they shift into being downright menacing - and a threat to our democracy.