A citizen’s right to subversion

Journalists have no special rights to subversion, nor protection from being treasonous. When they are subversive, they’re exercising their right as citizens.

There is tension in western democracies about where the State and citizen starts and ends.

The US is trying to arrest Edward Snowdon not for breaking his contractual obligations (which he surely did), but for the act of telling other citizens how they are spied on.

In NZ, a Defence Force security manual has been leaked which shows that it brands as “subversives” people like investigative journalists who acquire classified information to bring the Government into disrepute.

It seems that some agencies are becoming confused about who and what they’re protecting and serving.

They have every right, on our behalf, to prevent people giving information to foreign enemies that endangers citizens and operations. That is a treasonous act, and State has a right to protect us.

They have an organisational imperative to restrict contain information that will anger some citizens. It’s a messy world – there’s always someone who won’t like what a commercial, state or NGO organisation does. So those organisations need to be careful about how and when they discuss their work. None of us are really open books.

But the State cannot take the next step to brand citizens who seek and reveal information as subversive of the State. While businesses and NGOs are effectively private citizens, State agencies are public – they are in a real sense of, for and by their own citizens.

The civil service is very aware of the sensitivity and complexity of this unique status. Not all of its ancillary services and contractors are equally aware. They conduct their professional services as if it were for private organisations.

So Phil Goff, Labour’s Defence Spokesperson has rightly criticised the branding of journalists as subversives.

By the end of today the Defence Minister, Jonathan Coleman, had said the description was inappropriate and would be removed.

The real issue is regarding any citizen as subversive of the State for the act of finding information that would bring the Government into disrepute.

Journalists may have a role that does this, and the public wants them to do it; but it is achieved by exercising a right that is open to all of us.

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