Editorial: Freedom of information serves country best

Definition of 'subversive' in a Defence Force manual should have us questioning 'freedom' and what it means to us all. Photo / Thinkstock
Definition of 'subversive' in a Defence Force manual should have us questioning 'freedom' and what it means to us all. Photo / Thinkstock

Subversion is a heavily loaded word for the work that investigative journalists do. A New Zealand Defence Force manual - made public by the security critic Nicky Hager at the weekend - ordered defence staff to regard "certain investigative journalists" as a threat akin to subversive organisations. The manual, now to have that reference excised, says more about the military mindset than the media.

The attitude of our defence officials becomes important, though, if they can have phone calls and email "metadata" monitored by the Government Communications Security Bureau, as Mr Hager alleges they did of one journalist, Jon Stephenson, in Afghanistan. The Defence Force denies this and the defamation action brought by Stephenson this month suggests that if it was having his contacts there monitored, it was not very successful.

The NZDF manual defines subversion as "action designed to weaken the military, economic or political strength of a nation by undermining the morale, loyalty or reliability of its citizens", and warns that, "organisations with extreme ideologies may try to acquire classified information, not necessarily to give to a potential enemy, but because its use may bring the Government into disrepute".

It believes "certain investigative journalists" may seek official information for "similar reasons".

The Defence Force may have a legitimate role in maintaining the military, economic or political strength of the nation but since when was its job to suppress information that might "bring the Government into disrepute"? If that is subversion, democracy is in big trouble.

Fortunately, governments appear to have known nothing of the instructions, issued in 2003 when Labour was in office. Former Defence Minister Phil Goff disowned the manual this week, as did the current minister, Jonathan Coleman, who has ordered the reference to journalists removed. He might usefully order the removal of the reference to the Government, too.

He ought to go much further and review the culture of the department on issues of public information.

In 2003 the world was still reeling from the collapse of the twin towers, the United States was invading Iraq and terrorism was a possible threat anywhere.

The manual reflects the paranoia of the times, urging all service personnel and civilian staff to practise "defence in depth", which means they must "always establish the 'need to know' and 'need to hold' by any individual in respect of any item of material or information".

That is the antithesis of the principle that is supposed to have been guiding the public service since the passage of the Official Information Act 30 years ago. The act changed the presumption from one of withholding information unless there is a reason to make it public, to disclosing information unless there is a good reason to withhold it.

Freedom of information serves not just the public interest but the improvement of performance in the public services. If the Defence Force needs convincing, it need look no further than this embarrassing manual. There is nothing in it that might be news to an enemy. Had it been a public document from the outset, it could have been corrected years ago. Or more likely, words such as subversion would have been used more carefully.

Investigative journalism defines itself as telling you what somebody somewhere does not want you to know.

Our Defence Force has been unduly secretive. Too often in Afghanistan we heard what our troops had done from others. A little more "subversion" might do us no harm.

- NZ Herald

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