I’m often sceptical of the expression “freedom of the press” because despite this freedom we get a very massaged and managed view of political issues from most mainstream media outlets.
Information is power and those who control the information we receive have great power – total power often – to shape public discussion of important issues. This is especially true of war zones overseas because the flow of accurate news is always very restricted in any case.
This is not a criticism of journalists per se but rather a criticism of their masters – the senior management staff of news organizations who ultimately act at the filter to what we are told and how it is presented. These managers generally work for private companies and have advertisers to please and profits to make.
Take Afghanistan for example. For several years we were fed virtually nothing about what our SAS troops were doing there after they joined the US invasion and occupation of the country. Instead we were fed plenty of stories about what a great job our reconstruction teams were doing in Bamiyan province building schools and hospitals and doing good works generally.
When US websites and others reported on SAS movements and fighting they were involved in we still had our government refusing to confirm or deny. This was not to protect our troops as the Clark government claimed but to prevent the rise of public opinion against the war as it did with Vietnam.
The information needed managing and the New Zealand Defense Force and Defense Minister Phil Goff were determined to close off the bad stories and tell us only the “good stories” about things like helping Afghani kids.
The same pattern continued under National’s Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman.
When international news reports came in of torture of captured suspects by US and Afghani troops our government wasn’t interested. I personally wrote to Prime Minister Helen Clark on behalf of Global Peace and Justice Auckland when reports identified two Afghans who had been murdered while in US custody at Bagram Airbase where New Zealanders were also stationed. The US military reported the deaths as from natural causes but a medical whistleblower refused to cover up and the murder of these detainees was made public with their injuries detailed.
Helen Clark didn’t want to know and I received a bland response written by some NZDF spin doctor which politely told us to piss off.
Enter Jon Stephenson who has resolutely investigated what has and is being done in our name in Afghanistan and exposed numerous breaches of the Geneva Convention in the New Zealand SAS handling of captured suspects who were regularly handed over to US or Afghani forces for torture.
In one notable quote a New Zealand SAS soldier said “we sort of knew what would happen (when the suspects were handed over) – Americans being Americans”.
It seems that the great courage of our soldiers in battle – epitomized by Willie Apiata – failed them when basic morality demanded they stand up to the US military and insist captured suspects were/are treated according to the Geneva Convention.
No wonder Stephenson is hated by the NZDF and no wonder they see investigative journalists as the enemy. No wonder they threatened him and used US intelligence to spy on him and get his phone records. Stephenson’s reporting has allowed us to hold the NZDF to basic standards of decency and humanity we should expect from our troops and commanders in war but by which the NZDF leadership has repeatedly failed.
The only reason this has not been a bigger story in New Zealand is that both Labour and National have been keen to cover it up. Goff and Coleman are singing the same tune – denying any wrongdoing while saying that procedures for handling prisoners have now been changed and assurances been given by Afghani authorities that any suspects handed over will be treated humanely. Blah, blah, blah.
There is still a story to be told about the role of our current Governor General Jerry Mateparae who previously headed up our Defense Forces in Afghanistan while the torture of detainees was routine. Mateparae has always refused to answer questions about it and for this reason alone is unfit to hold the public post he currently occupies.
Independent investigative journalists like Jon Stephenson are like gold – very rare and extremely valuable. His personal integrity and professionalism have done this country a great service.
While the NZDF and successive politicians have done their best to hide some nasty truths from the public Stephenson has shone a strong light in a dark place.
While much of media is engaged in serial drivel and mindless tittle-tattle Stephenson practices the vitally important role which “freedom of the press” demands.