Kazakhstan police have ordered four media organisations to hand over evidence of an alleged illegal recording of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The police said they would carry out searches to get the material. Opposition politicians have accused Mr Nazarbayev of trying to gag the media in the run-up to an election next weekend.
If you read that, you would think that, unfortunately, it’s par for the course in some countries that don’t have the democratic institutions and deep respect for the democratic process among its leadership and society that we have.
Well, we’re now one of those countries. Because that paragraph from the BBC is about New Zealand, I’ve just switched the names.
Incredibly, we face a situation where Police acting on the government’s instructions may soon be marching into newsrooms demanding their footage and sources. If the journalists refuse to cooperate (and they will) we could see them in jail for contempt of court.
I don’t think Key planned this, very seldom do these crises emerge as a result of secret plans, but he using Bainimarama tactics to silence his critics and he has the power, which he has chosen not to exercise, to call off the Police at the moment’s notice and end what is quickly becoming a constitutional crisis.
Make no mistake: this is a becoming constitutional crisis. What Key is doing – for no apparent reason other than he thinks he can – is an attack on our democratic order on a scale that we haven’t witnessed in this country since the Holland Government’s emergency laws in 1951.
But this isn’t 1951. The media is too diverse and too diffuse to be controlled and intimidated. Modern journalists have come up in the age of the OIA, the BORA, and the HRA. They may play the game and all that but, at the end of the day, they know that they have an important role as an independent check on the exercise of power, the fourth estate. They will not and must not take this lying down. What started off as a bit of biffo between a newspaper and the government is now a question of the media’s right to report without political interference.
The legal fraternity is also reacting with numerous lawyers attacking Key’s claim that the taping was illegal and a case filed for a declaratory judgment that it was legal. I would be extremely surprised if a judge wouldn’t side with press freedom in this case. These Bainimarama tactics have no place in our country.
And there’s no guarantee that Key will get his search warrants anyway. No judge who gives a damn about our democratic constitution will sanction a blatant crackdown on the media days from an election.
For all it’s weakness, our system does have checks on abuse of power. Key’s Bainimarama tactics have made him a cancer on our democratic body politic, and the antibodies are reacting.
Two things, though, make me nervous.
First is TVNZ and Guyon Espiner. He doesn’t want to make a story of anything arising from the teapot tapes because he’s miffed he doesn’t have them. So, Guyon’s been talking down everything so far and he’s a very powerful guy. That legitimises Key’s actions. But when the police come knocking on TVNZ’s door, I believe that will change.
Second is CERA. This is exactly why you don’t just trust politicians with dictatorial powers. At the time, people said ‘these powers well make the rebuild faster (what rebuild?) and what’s the harm?’ but does it seem harmless now that the government is turning state power on media organisations it doesn’t like?