Annual Report 2001 : Defence Of Free Expression
DEFENCE OF FREE EXPRESSION
The Press Council during 2001 had occasion to pursue actively one of its objectives to promote freedom of the Press. Incursions into free expression occur not clothed as such but in a more subtle form and generally supported by a tenable argument that some good will result. Nevertheless, the end result is curtailment of free expression.
The proposal contained in the Electoral Amendment Act in March 2001 was to make it a criminal offence to publish the results of public opinion polls for an election or by-election during the 28-day period before an election. The Press Council by public statement opposed the proposal and drew attention to Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act that protects the right of New Zealanders to exchange information and opinion, which the Council was of the opinion the proposal contravened. No further action seems to have been taken; the proposal was widely condemned.
In November 2001 Parliament re-introduced criminal libel by an amendment to the Electoral Act that opposition parties apparently missed. Specifically it was made an offence to defame a candidate at election time, and breach carried with it a heavy fine or imprisonment. The Press Council, in a press release, recorded its opposition and the law was also roundly condemned in most quarters. The issues were widely debated in the print media with universal antagonism. Again the section was almost certainly in contravention of s14 of the Bill of Rights Act. The law was abandoned by an amendment contained in the Electoral Amendment Bill (No 2) on February 14, 2002.
Parliament's Justice and Electoral select committee conducted an inquiry into the local body elections of 2001. Section 135 of the Local Electoral Act 2001 made it a criminal offence to support a candidate without the candidate's written authority. The Press Council made a formal submission to the Committee seeking abolition of the section.
The Council submitted that the section was so widely drawn that it went beyond unauthorised expenditure and any remedial intention it might have had. As part of the statute it unnecessarily encroached on the editorial side of a newspaper placing an editor in an invidious position on what could be printed about a candidate. The section provides a criminal sanction of conviction and fine and accordingly should not be ambiguous and almost impossible of enforcement.