Newsroom Special Inquiry

MPs concerned about ‘digital harm’ media claim

Politicians have expressed concern about a digital harm complaint laid against Newsroom for its news coverage of Sir Ray Avery, with some saying the case shows the threat to free speech posed by cyberbullying legislation used to make the charge.

Avery, a former New Zealander of the Year, has laid a complaint against Newsroom under the Harmful Digital Communications Act over a series of news reports on his background, products and promises, saying the reports have caused him serious emotional distress and amount to a form of digital harm.

The Act, passed by the last National government in 2015, was designed to deter, prevent and lessen harmful digital communications such as cyber bullying, harassment and revenge porn.

While some MPs were reluctant to comment on the specific complaint made against Newsroom, most expressed concerns about potential overreach if the law was used to suppress media coverage.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had not looked into the detail of Avery’s complaint or the use of the law to target media outlets, but what was described by Newsroom “sounds like it’s outside the scope” -  although she offered the caveat that it “depends on whether or not it’s successful”.

Asked whether she felt it was possible for a media outlet to cyberbully an individual or organisation through news coverage, Ardern responded: “That is not my understanding of the intent of the bill or the act.”

David Seymour said he had warned in 2015 "that National's knee-jerk HDCA would be used to bully the media into taking down legitimate material and was a threat to free speech".

Justice Minister Andrew Little said he was not familiar with Avery’s complaint and was reluctant to comment, but speaking more generally about the law said a balance had to be struck between stopping “nasty, insidious and nefarious stuff” without excessively inhibiting freedom of expression.

“It’s about making sure the lines are drawn clearly: I don’t know enough about the incidents you’re talking about to know whether that has happened, but you don’t want legislation like that to be used to suppress legitimate freedom of speech.”

On Twitter, Green MP Gareth Hughes cited Avery's complaint as an example of why he voted against the legislation, saying: "It's so broad it could be used to try & shut down legitimate communication, including media reporting."

ACT leader David Seymour also raised concerns on Twitter, saying he had warned in 2015 "that National's knee-jerk HDCA would be used to bully the media into taking down legitimate material and was a threat to free speech".

'Worrying development'

MPs from the National Party, which was responsible for introducing the legislation during its time in government, also expressed some cautious concern.

Amy Adams, who was responsible for shepherding the law into effect in 2016 as justice minister, said while she was unfamiliar with the details of Avery’s complaint, she had been “actually pretty comfortable” with how the law had been applied while she was minister.

The intent had been to ensure digital communications were not used to bully and harass, such as cases of “revenge porn” and cyberbullying, Adams said.

“If it was to be extended in a way that was to be used to have the effect of limiting the proper operations of the media, it would be a very worrying development.”

“I don’t think the media was ever the intended target of it, but that’s not to say that media couldn’t act outrageously, not that I’ve ever seen them do so…

“If it was to be extended in a way that was to be used to have the effect of limiting the proper operations of the media, it would be a very worrying development.”

National leader Simon Bridges said the issue of whether the Act should apply to media outlets was “not something I’ve looked at”, but added: “If there were genuine concerns there from media being caught up in that, I’d obviously take that very seriously.

“It could well be [an unintended consequence], and again if that was the case that was something I’d want to take seriously.”

Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings has described Avery's complaint as "a misguided attempt to stop journalists highlighting important issues of public interest".

"We don’t believe this is what Parliament had in mind and we will oppose this tactic, on behalf of all news media. The public has a right to know, especially when it is being asked to donate money.”

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