New Zealand, US may have spied on McClatchy reporter

Concern over government surveillance of journalists has washed up on the faraway shores of New Zealand, with a report in the country’s Sunday Star this week asserting that the military there, with help from U.S. intelligence, spied on an investigative journalist who had been critical of its activities in Afghanistan. 

The report alleged that New Zealand’s Defence Force was monitoring the phone records of freelance journalist Jon Stephenson, who was working for American news service McClatchy and other news outlets when his records were intercepted. New Zealand and the United States are party to a five-country agreement on sharing intelligence information.

McClatchy today wrote a letter to James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, demanding clarification of whether the U.S. played a role in collecting or using data on Stephenson. “We regard any targeted collection of the metadata of our journalists as a serious interference with McClatchy’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news,” the letter states.

The Sunday Star report alleged that the New Zealand military gained access to “who Stephenson had phoned and then who those people had phoned, creating what the sources called a ‘tree’ of the journalist’s associates.” In its letter, McClatchy expressed concern that this would include other journalists working for the agency as well as editors in Washington, D.C.

The letter also expressed alarm that the U.S. may have assisted in the “retaliatory monitoring” of a journalist. New Zealand Defense Force Chief Rhys Jones accused Stephenson of fabricating details of reports published in 2010 and 2011 about the military’s mishandling of prisoners in Afghanistan. According to news reports, the accusation led Stephenson to sue for defamation, a case that resulted in a hung jury this month. Stephenson also claimed an active officer made death threats against him in 2011 because of his critical stories, according to a Radio New Zealand report published today. Stephenson could not be reached for comment.

Wellington has rejected allegations that Stephenson was a subject of surveillance and of any U.S. involvement. A U.S. official also denied the claims on Monday, according to The Associated Press. Prime Minister John Key said Monday that it is possible for reporters to get caught in surveillance nets when the United States spies on enemy combatants.

McClatchy, citing past assurances by President Barack Obama that U.S. surveillance efforts are “carefully circumscribed” for national security, said such assurances “cannot be squared” with the reports out of New Zealand.

Compounding concerns about the New Zealand military’s targeting of journalists, the Sunday Star reported that a confidential military training manual drafted in 2003 lists investigative journalists as one of the top threats to state security–up there with terrorists and hostile foreign intelligence groups. A military official in New Zealand acknowledged the existence of the manual on Monday, referring to it as “inappropriate and heavy-handed,” and ordered a revision to remove any references to journalists, news reports said.

Several key figures in New Zealand expressed dismay over the spying allegations. Member of Parliament Peter Dunne tweeted on Sunday that state surveillance of journalists is “appalling and unacceptable.” And a former military chief, Bruce Ferguson, defended the Sunday Star reporter, Nicky Hager, and investigative journalism as a whole in an interview with Radio New Zealand: “[Hager] gets a lot of it right, he gets some of it wrong but he keeps everyone honest, and I think that’s probably a very healthy thing to do. And if you don’t have those sorts of people, you’re getting into autocracy and dictatorship, and I’d hate to see us go that way.”

News reports say New Zealand is expected to pass an expansive surveillance bill that would allow the government to monitor private communication of its citizens in the name of national security.