Government

New terrorism bill could breach press freedom

The Terrorism Suppression Bill, designed to deal with terrorists returning from overseas, has hit its latest speed bump as Amnesty International raises concerns it could be used to stifle press freedom, Marc Daalder reports

The Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Bill could allow the Government to prevent New Zealanders from speaking with the media, according to advice the Ministry of Justice sent to a select committee.

Amnesty International New Zealand policy and advocacy manager Annaliese Johnston says, "if this legislation does allow for a media gag, that's a bunch of red flags to us".

The bill is designed to deal with terrorists returning from overseas, with ISIS fighters with New Zealand citizenship like Mark Taylor a particular focus. It would allow the Government to impose a control order regime on suspected terrorists entering the country even if there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute them.

A non-exhaustive list of example orders in the bill includes prohibiting someone from being in a specific place without a police escort, restricting someone from using the internet, or prohibiting or restricting the "relevant person from communicating or associating with specified individuals, or a specified class of individuals". A High Court judge would have to approve the control orders before they were put in place.

Little unsure about possibility of media gag

After Parliament's foreign affairs, defence and trade committee asked the Ministry of Justice for advice on provisions in the bill that relate to name suppression, the ministry raised the possibility of "making it a condition of the control order that the person not give media interviews".

Justice Minister Andrew Little told Newsroom he couldn't comment on the process before he had read the select committee's report. "I think you're reading far too much into the situation," he said.

"I don't know what the questions [the select committee asked] are, I don't know the context of it, I don't know the context in which this advice has been given. So it's impossible for me to comment on that."

When asked whether the bill as sent to the select committee for scrutiny would have allowed the Government to impose control orders preventing someone from speaking with the media, Little said he wasn't sure.

"I'm not sure. I just don't know," he said. "The original bill had examples of what orders might be imposed as part of a control order. The idea is to ... provide a level of protection to somebody who has already returned but also to facilitate their reintegration and rehabilitation back to a community that they haven't been a part of for a long time."

Little said he had not looked at using control orders in this way. The Ministry of Justice declined to comment on the possibility of using control orders to impose a media gag.

Human rights concerns raised

"Amnesty International has significant concerns that the introduction of a control order scheme in New Zealand has not been adequately justified as a necessary or proportionate limitation to human rights, which it must be under global agreements New Zealand is signed to," Johnston said.

"Freedom of expression is especially important when it comes to name suppression - when the bill's processes could breach natural justice and someone may not be aware of the evidence being used against them, how are they supposed to defend themselves? People use news media when legal systems fail.

"It's also not clear in the legislation what can and cannot be a control order, we would like to see more definition and safeguards around this."

Green MP and committee member Golriz Ghahraman told Newsroom that her "understanding is that we're allowing judges to take into account public safety as one of the conditions when they consider allowing for publicity".

"That's for the case of the person furthering their terrorist aims through the media, for example. Which I think would be illegal in any case. I think if there's a public safety issue with a publication or speech, we definitely already have the ability to suppress it, so I don't think that's a new thing."

"It's just something the committee was really worried about, because it appeared that there would always be publicity if the person wanted that," she said.

Measure linked to name suppression

As introduced, the bill mandated name suppression alongside any control order regime, unless the person in question wanted it lifted. The select committee evidently became concerned that a suspected terrorist could lift name suppression and use publicity to spread terrorist content or target protected groups.

"The Committee has asked for advice on amending clause 32 of the bill to provide for the court to have discretion with respect of the lifting of automatic name suppression," the ministry wrote. "We accept that material may arise during a control order proceeding that could, if published, lead to hostility towards a group of persons protected under the Human Rights Act 1991, or which could encourage criminal acts or promote terrorism."

"While this risk can be mitigated to a large degree by other provisions of the bill—e.g. by making it a condition of the control order that the person not give media interviews [emphasis added], or by restricting the person from encouraging criminal acts or promoting hostility towards a protected group of people in their media engagements—it is possible that the publication of the relevant person’s name may, by itself, cause one of the harms identified above."

The select committee returned the bill to Parliament with a recommendation that judges have more discretion on whether to lift name suppression. The committee's proposed amendments have not yet been voted on.

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