Thursday, April 08, 2021

Protecting journalists

Back in 2014, the police raided and searched journalist Nicky Hager's home over his book Dirty Politics, seizing his journalistic work in an effort to identify his sources to please their political masters in the National party. The raid - and much of the police's related investigative work - was later ruled to be illegal, with a judge ruling that police had deceived the court by omission by failing to inform the judge issuing the search warrant that Hager was a journalist and the information sought was journalistic work-product. The police ended up paying substantial damages. Now, Labour MP Louisa Wall has a bill in the ballot to stop such an abuse of power from happening ever again.

The Protection of Journalists’ Sources Bill would firstly modify the Evidence Act so that investigative journalists as well as beat reporters would be explicitly protected from being quizzed in court about their sources. Secondly, it would make numerous changes to the Search and Surveillance Act to impose procedural safeguards for journalists, requiring warrants and production orders against them or which attempt to identify their sources to be issued by judges, explicitly requiring police to inform judges when they target journalists or sources, and requiring journalists to be notified of any production order (e.g. for phone, bank or travel records) against them or their sources so it can be challenged. It would also impose a general duty on everyone exercising powers under the Search and Surveillance Act, from judges and issuing officers down to the plods enforcing a search warrant to protect journalistic privilege. All of which creates opportunities for an invasion of privilege to be challenged and overturned.

The one thing that is missing is a change to the definition of "news activity" in the Privacy Act 2020 to ensure that investigative journalists are also protected under that Act and close the loophole exploited by the police and GCSB to access David Fisher's work on Kim Dotcom. Its an omnibus bill, and this would absolutely be consistent with its purpose.

This bill is desperately needed, and the sooner it is drawn from the ballot, the better. Alternatively, it seems like it would be a great opportunity for opposition MPs to show their commitment to freedom of the press by signing up to support it.