Transcript: Jon Stephenson – Stop the GCSB Bill Meeting – 19/08/2013

Journalist and war correspondent Jon Stephenson addresses the audience at Stop the GCSB Meeting, Auckland Town Hall, Monday 19th August 2013

Well I’m not a politician so I will leave the politics to the politicians; and I will not try and give you a legal analysis of the GCSB Bill there are other people like Rodney (Harrison QC) who are far better placed to do that than me.  What I would like to tell you about is my own experiences as a working journalist because I think it offers some insights into why caution might be in order when it comes to introducing new spying legislation.

I’ve been reporting on issues and events associated with this so-called ‘War on Terrorism’ since the attacks of 11th September 2001. Part of that reporting has seen me, like my colleague Nicky (Hager), looking into what New Zealand’s role really has been in the ‘War on Terrorism’.  And what I started to notice after a few years was that some people in the Government and the Defence Force weren’t all that happy with my work.  First there were murmurs, discontent, rumbles, then it extended to rumours, bad-mouthing, and occasionally to complaints – none of them sustained.  

On one occasion two years ago, direct threats were made to my safety and that of my sources by a senior serving Defence Force Officer; not pleasant but not entirely surprising – journalism after all is not a popularity contest. However it went further than that, that same Officer who threatened me openly boasted to me that he had information about my movements. 

He knew when I was coming and going from New Zealand, he knew he said when I was in Afghanistan. And evidence in a recent defamation action I was involved with last month confirmed that the Defence Force did indeed know when I was arriving in Afghanistan and it confirmed that they’d been monitoring my movements there rather closely.

How did they do that? We don’t yet know all the facts but what we do know thanks to recent story in the Sunday Star Times was that the Defence Force asked its allies in Afghanistan to provide them with copies of my telephone ‘metadata’ – presumably so that they could get a clearer picture of what or where I was and who I was speaking to.

We also learnt that for the past decade or so senior Officers in the Defence Force have categorised, quote, certain investigative journalists, unquote – as ‘subversive threats’ to our nation – I think it’s fair to say two of those quote investigative journalists are here tonight.  So what sorts of information have we been revealing?

There was information that contradicted some of the things that our Government and Defence Force have told you.  Information they didn’t want you to know.  Information like how our Special Forces had detained dozens of people in Afghanistan and without recording their names or other details transferred them to US Forces who abused, mistreated and tortured them. 

And in Nicky’s cased it was revealing in the way in which our military and intelligence staff had been assisting the Americans in the ‘War on Terrorism’.  Doing things like, helping plan drones strikes in Pakistan.  This information was politically [in]convenient, it was embarrassing, but it was not information that put lives at risk or which undermined our ‘national security’ in any meaningful sense of the word. 

For me it’s disturbing to think that all a journalists’ needs to do to be lumped in with terrorists and foreign intelligence organisations is try to do what any journalist worthy of the name is suppose to do – hold the powers to be to account [audience claps].

And it made me wonder, what might this document, that revealed journalists, quote, as subversive, unquote, what might this document tell us about the mindset  of our security and intelligence officials,  if this is the sort of mindset prevailing in the upper echelons of our Defence Force.  Did they also see journalists as ‘subversive’?  Might the new powers being sort by the GCSB potentially be used to monitor journalists?  Or to try to locate our sources for stories that have embarrassed or inconvenienced those in power?

Now a decade ago I would have said there were no chance of that – these days’ I’m not so sure. 

On some of the interpretations of the GCS[Bill], and again I am not an expert, but it seems clear that an unnecessarily wide range of information can be gathered from  a wide range of people, for a wide range of reasons, and stored, analysed and shared with agencies here and abroad.

If, as this happened in the United States, journalists phone records were accessed in an attempt to find sources, the affect on ‘media freedom’ here would be chilling.  Many sources would no longer take the risk of speaking to us – and who could blame them.   The Prime Minister and his Government are asking us to trust them on such matters.  The Prime Minister said recently,

“Were not the ones spying on journalists, were the ones defending them [audience laughs].  

Well excuse my cynicism, I don’t believe him, and I know another journalist in Wellington who doesn’t either.

On the basis of my experience with a number of senior Government officials and Military officials, on the basis of this Government’s attempt to pass this piece of legislation without sufficient discussion, public debate, and on the basis of their frequent attempts to denigrate or marginalise dissenters in this country – like Mike Joy, or Nicky Hager, or the Human Rights Commission – I find it hard to trust them.

My view for what it’s worth, we need a thorough, transparent and impartial review of the work of our security and intelligence agencies and of our Defence Force before any new legislation is passed [audience claps].

Before we trust our security and intelligence officials with greater powers to monitor our electronic communications, in a day and age, when most of our lives are stored online, let them demonstrate that they are worthy of that trust.  Let them explain to us what they did and are continuing to do in the so called ‘War on Terrorism’, and how they used the powers they were given after the ‘War on Terrorism’ began and ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction [audience claps] – we’ve heard that line before.

Let’s ensure the laws in which our security and intelligence agencies operate are drafted as carefully, clearly and transparently as possible. 

Let’s ensure there is rigorous and effective oversight of these agencies and not just someone rubber stamping their actions.  There are good men and women in our Defence Force – there’s no question about that – and one would like to say the same for our intelligence agencies, but let us ensure their skills and commitment are not misused.

Let us ensure that any powers given to these agencies are in the interests of the New Zealand public and not just the interest of the powers that be in Wellington or in Washington.

Thank you. 

 Download pdf transcript: GCSB 2013 08 19 Auckland Town Hall – Jon Stephenson

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