Telling truth to power

The story below reads like some kind of awesomely bad joke. The government of a small country spends up large to bully a free lance journalist when all he has done is to tell an inconvenient truth.

All of the $643k plus whatever they paid in other (non-disclosed) legal costs and damages to the journalist when they were proved wrong could have been avoided. I recall at the time various people strongly defended the defence department.

It is not like a freelance journalist would go to Afghanistan for fun. He was there to provide an independent perspective from a war zone. The story Eyes Wide Shut was published by Metro magazine.

“How many taxpayer-funded lawyers does it take to fight a journalist?

In the case of the defamation action brought against the New Zealand Defence Force by war reporter Jon Stephenson, the answer is 15.

In response to an Official Information request by the Herald, the Defence Force revealed it used 12 lawyers – including six senior practitioners – from the Government’s legal arm, Crown Law, plus three external barristers.

In total it spent $643,000 defending itself, of which $468,000 was spent on the external barristers.

It spent $55,000 for “flights, booking fees, accommodation …” and $17,000 for “costs and expert witnesses”.

The story is titled The NZDF cost of fighting a journalist

To add insult to injury that same journalist was personally attacked by the Prime Minister. PM attacks journalist over SAS torture claims

As Russell Brown pointed out on Facebook

“Even though it knew he was right before it even got to court, the NZDF used 15 lawyers and spent $643,000 of your money attempting to defend Jon Stephenson’s defamation claim against its former commander.”

Many years ago I studied law and graduated but apart from a short time working as a law clerk in two different practices I decided that being an altruist was not enough of a reason to work as a lawyer.

My observations at the time was that the law was something that power and privilege use to punish those they didn’t like and that justice was unfortunately out of reach for most people. Stories like this where politicians have used legal and illegal means to discredit a journalist should prompt some soul searching but so far – no signs of that.

“The oldest cliché is that truth is the first casualty of war. I disagree. Journalism is the first casualty. Not only that: it has become a weapon of war, a virulent censorship that goes unrecognized in the United States, Britain, and other democracies; censorship by omission, whose power is such that, in war, it can mean the difference between life and death for people in faraway countries.”

John Pilger
According to other sources the attempts to discredit Jon Stephenson went even further than just a court case.

the NZ Defence Force asked US intelligence to spy on Kiwi journalist Jon Stephenson’s communications in Afghanistan.

See US spy agencies eavesdrop on Kiwi for more on that story.

“The Human Rights Foundation says Defence Force involvement in monitoring a journalist is an abuse of fundamental human rights.

“Don’t they understand the vital importance of freedom of the press?” spokesman Tim McBride said. “Independent journalism is especially important in a controversial war zone where the public has a right to know what really happens and not just get military public relations,” he said.”

I expect the extra-legal and dishonest attempts to discredit Jon would have added to the dirty trick campaign costs over and above the legal costs of the court case.

Disclosure: Back in the ’90’s I used to flat with Jon. At that time he had some serious health concerns. He also had a keen interest in research and doing the right thing so it was no surprise to hear he was a war journalist. I haven’t seen him in more than 20 years but in my opinion he is motivated by telling the truth.

For more background on Jon see War reporter’s lonely road