9 July 2013 (updated 2013-07-28)

Afghanistan still in the news

The NZDF's own  figures, recently released by journalist David Fisher,  show that in 2012 nineteen New Zealand troops, out of 150 deployed in Afghanistan, were sent home on "psychological" grounds in a failed bid to restore discipline within the occupation force.  However the complete collapse of morale in the New Zealand forces in the latter months of 2012 cannot be forever concealed under the guise of "psychological repatriation".

The army's attempt to discredit journalist Jon Stephenson has ended up in the New  Zealand courts, where Stephenson is seeking redress for military allegations that he had made false claims about having interviewed an Afghan Army officer in Kabul   From one perspective the case seems a storm in a teacup, but it is crucially important, because it lifts the lid on the relationship between the mass media, the military, and the wider regime in this country.   To the best of my knowledge Stephenson was the only New Zealand journalist who maintained his  independence of the military.  He has not told us everything he knows of events in Afghanistan, but neither has he engaged in the gross deceit and blatant untruths which are the stock-in-trade of the New Zealand mass media.  It is for that reason that he parted company with his former employer, the state  broadcaster Radio New Zealand, and for that reason the New Zealand army made him persona non grata and has done its best to discredit him and besmirch his professional reputation as a journalist.  Whether he receives justice from the courts is yet to be seen, but merely by exposing the case to their scrutiny he has done us all a service.

Meanwhile the regime's mass media continues to maintain, on instructions from the highest levels, that the military coup against an elected civilian government in Egypt was not a coup at all, but a "step along the way to democracy".   Let us pray that they never have the chance to applaud such a democratic transition in this country.   On reflection that is an unlikely proposition.  With no opposition press or broadcasting services, and a civilian government always ready to do the bidding of Washington, the military has no present need to "intervene" in the political situation in New Zealand - except to silence a journalist who made the "mistake" of thinking that  it s the responsibility of a journalist to tell the truth.

2013-07-15 Note: Some evidence from the case has found its way into the mass media.  One particularly revealing exchange: Stephenson's lawyer (to a witness who is a senior New Zealand army officer and SAS commander):  "I don't know any Afghans".  The witness in reply: "You're  lucky".   Coming from such a high level, and in such a solemn forum, that comment speaks volumes about the attitudes of the New Zealand government and the New Zealand military towards the people whose land it is occupying.  Occupation forces become angry at and embittered towards the people whom they are sent to oppress, with their greatest contempt being reserved for their collaborators.   Coincidentally, as I was preparing to light the fire this morning, my eye caught the headline of an old New Zealand Herald editorial which read "Send more troops to get the job done".  Stupid, ignorant or disingenous?  I have to answer "All three".   The mass media had known for years that the Afghans hated the New Zealand troops, the New Zealanders were in contempt of their Afghan allies and that the war was well and truly lost long ago.  By last year they knew that the discipline and morale of the New Zealand forces had collapsed.  They kept up the pretence that this was a winnable war for purely political reasons, and without regard to the unnecessary human suffering on all sides that would be involved in its prolongation.

2013-07-19 At the conclusion of the court hearing of Stephenson's libel claim against the New Zealand Defence Force and its Chief, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones (which ended in a hung jury), Lieutenant-General Jones made the astonishing confession that the case had been defended in order to protect the reputations of its personnel who,Stephenson had alleged in a Metro magazine article, had handed captured suspects over to Afghan government agencies which were know to torture prisoners.  Jones, who had previously admitted that the claims the army had made against Stephenson were "probably untrue" has now admitted that the libel charge was made for reasons which were entirely extraneous to the case, and which had no relation to its merits.   The army has now in effect admitted that Stephenson was libelled because he was perceived to be a critic of the Afghan campaign, and that the army refused to acknowledge fault because it was attempting to protect those whose misconduct Stephenson had exposed.    Jon Stephenson is thus a victim of abuse of power and miscarriage of justice.   The only explanation for the failure of the jury to reach a unanimous verdict in the case is that a significant minority among the general population of New Zealand are die-hard supporters of the regime who will support the military in any circumstances.    However, it needs to be remembered that while he has been a critic, till this point Stephenson can not be classified as an opponent of the regime.   He may yet become one if the New Zealand government does not take this last opportunity to redress the wrong that has been done to him.

There was a time when journalists and the press sat at the fringes of the body politic, rather as bloggers do today.  Now the mass media is an integral part of the system of governance, which is why it is commonly known as the "fourth estate".  Without the press and broadcasting, the political system could not function as it does.  It might of course function better.   It might be more democratic and representative, but the fact is that the western democracy could not exist in its twenty-first century form in the absence of the mass media.   Yet the mass media holds itself to be an institution which stands above and outside politics, rather like the armed forces, the police and the monarchy.  Its proclaimed function is to serve the interests of government in the broadest sense, without bias or particular affections.   In doing so it enjoys a natural rapport with those other institutions, the armed forces, the police, and the monarchy which, like the mass media, are essential elements of the political system while remaining technically "apolitical".   As a result of that special relationship the armed forces have acquired expectations of the mass media which go to the heart of the Stephenson affair.   Stephenson had implicitly criticised the conduct of the New Zealand Defence Forces.   To the NZDF he was in breach of the tacit agreement which exists between the media and the military, and the NZDF considered itself justified in declaring Stephenson persona-non-grata, and in invoking the powers of the New Zealand police and the Head of Government in an effort to discredit him.  As if to confirm the NZDF judgement against Stephenson, the mass media as a whole cut Stephenson loose as he received his whipping, and it was only at the conclusion of the the court case against the NZDF and its commander, Rhys Jones, that a few academic teachers of journalism and the Radio New Zealand "Media Watch" programme began to suggest that there was something amiss when the New Zealand government could act with impunity against a journalist's freedom to report on affairs of state.  The Stephenson affair has really demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that the mass media in New Zealand is unable to report critically on those institutions which, like itself, are deemed to be "above politics".   Stephenson is one of the very few New Zealand journalists who has not been completely cowed by the regime, and it is unlikely that he will be permitted to resume working at his trade in this country now that court proceedings have come to an end.

The day after I reported that the NZDF considered investigating journalist Jon Stephenson to be "in breach of the tacit agreement which exists between the media and the military" comes the release of leaked official documents which confirm that the NZDF considers that investigating journalists as a category constitute a "subversive threat" to the operations of the New Zealand military.   What is generally not known however is that public surveillance computer systems being installed by the GCSB in cooperation with the "Five Eyes" alliance provide for targetting such "known subversives" for assassination.  The New Zealand state is now just a key click away from sending investigating journalists like Stephenson to their death.

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