Opinion by Selwyn Manning, editor of Evening Report
Respected New Zealand Herald journalist Phil Taylor’s reportage last week has again raised concerns about poor transparency of the New Zealand government.
I also spoke on the issues raised in Phil Taylor’s report, on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel with Jim Mora.
Phil Taylor’s latest report (in what is shaping up to be a series) is titled ‘Witness said no to video link‘. It is about the New Zealand Defence Force and its attempt to avoid paying damages to a journalist, Jon Stephenson, who claimed it defamed him after his Metro magazine expose titled Eyes Wide Shut was published.
The Herald began digging into this issue after the National-led government was forced by the court to pay Jon Stephenson an undisclosed sum. The settlement came with conditions where both parties were not to discuss the proportioned values of that settlement.
It is important to point out, those conditions do not prevent the government from facing up to its public interest responsibilities, to enquire and speak out on what went on up in Afghanistan and why it attempted to shut this issue down through shoot-the-messenger tactics.
Phil Taylor’s reportage shows the stonewalling continues and details how:
1. The government spent $1 million on failing to defend itself after it apparently defamed journalist Jon Stephenson, after he exposed potential breaches of international law by New Zealand Defence personnel in Afghanistan.
2. The government’s star witness, an Afghani security unit commander, refused to testify via video link from Afghanistan, but insisted he be brought to New Zealand.
3. Once here, the commander’s testimony was found to be untrue.
4. Despite this he was left to wander off around New Zealand without supervision.
5. He failed to take his return flight to Afghanistan, but has since claimed asylum and is seeking to stay here permanently.
When Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee was asked by Phil Taylor:
Would there be an inquiry into whether or not the commander committed perjury, and whether the Defence Force was gamed?
Gerry Brownlee answered “no”.
Frankly, such a response fails to serve the public interest, and leaves one wondering: what has the government got to hide.
This is serious stuff.
The public deserves to know:
1. What really happened up there in Afghanistan
2. Why the government appears to be shying away from revealing the facts and context of this affair
3. Why it appears the NZ Defence Force permitted its Afghani commander witness to wander off without supervision, especially after he may have committed perjury
4. And ultimately, who is possibly culpable or entangled in what may have been a significant breach of international law during the time New Zealand Defence personnel were operational in Afghanistan.
This sordid affair underscores how, under recent governments, how difficult it is to advance or compel our elected representatives to initiate a thorough formal inquiry on any matter that may be contrary to their political interests.
Considering how this government’s politicians appear determined to keep the facts hidden, in my view, it is now reasonable to question their motives.
This opinion article by Selwyn Manning was published as Evening Report’s editorial on 4 March 2016 and is republished by Asia Pacific Report with permission.