Monday, July 22, 2013

A ‘dirty war’, NZ military cover-up and the vindication of a journalist

 Trailer for the Jeremy Scahill film Dirty Wars about the hidden truth over America's covert wars.

INDEPENDENT investigative journalist Jon Stephenson called it a “moral victory”. The Herald on Sunday described it as a “vindication” in an editorial.

And for many New Zealand journalists it was a humiliation of the military even before the defamation case was over.

Although the jury couldn’t make up its mind on whether it was defamation, the NZ Defence Force chief, Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones, had already conceded the factual issues, the smear webpage against Stephenson had been removed and the military had pledged to make public statement accepting the journalist’s version of events in his reports of New Zealand’s role in the “dirty war” in Afghanistan.

An independent journalist had taken on the might of the Defence Force with its battery of lawyers and legal resources – and won.

Jon Stephenson’s credibility was intact, the Defence Force’s credibility in tatters. But at what price?

Investigative journalist Jon Stephenson speaking at a
War Reporting symposium organised by the
Pacific Media Centre.
What legal costs were at stake as Stephenson went on holiday abroad and to contemplate whether he would seek a defamation retrial. He had sought $500,000 in damages and costs; his legal team’s costs are not expected to “have much change” from $100,000.

Jon Stephenson had brought the civil case against General Jones for defamation over a NZ Defence Force statement about articles he wrote during 2010 and 2011.

One of Stephenson's award-winning articles, which featured in Metro magazine in 2011, entitled "Eyes Wide Shut", described how SAS soldiers transferred Afghan detainees to authorities who tortured them.

A statement issued by General Jones denied Stephenson had performed an interview with the commander of a crisis response unit in Afghanistan. It also stated that he had never entered the base where the meeting took place.

Three articles written by Stephenson had been based on this interview. And these are the core issues over which General Jones conceded he was wrong about after listening to Stephenson’s evidence in court.

'Eyes Wide Shut', the Jon Stephenson Metro investigation into NZ
military collaboration with "torture authorities"
in Afghanistan.
In a case like this, it is easy to feel isolated and unsupported. But Stephenson’s moral victory was a triumph for the Fourth Estate. And he only has to look at the documentary Dirty Wars – currently screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival – to see that his own investigations mirrored investigations by The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill in the context of the lawless secret operations of the global US war on terror – a “war without end”.

Also showing at the Film Festival is the documentary He Toko Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan by Kay Ellmers and Annie Doldson, also an indictment of the NZ military in the “dirty war” And a vindication of Stephenson.

Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch report on the Stephenson lawsuit and its implications for media at the weekend was an excellent analysis of the issues. As presenter Colin Peacock stated in his opening comments, this was “an extraordinary case which pitted a freelance journalist against our armed forces. We’ll look at how and why this dispute between then went so far and what the outcome might mean for both the journalists and for those who deal with them.”
Herald on Sunday editorial:  
Officials must think twice before making false claims
Jon Stephenson ventured where few journalists have gone when he sued the head of the Defence Force for defamation. In court [last] week, Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones conceded the issues of fact yet the jury could not agree on a verdict.
Though only nine of the 12 needed to agree, the foreman told the judge they were all "strong-minded, opinionated" people and he did not believe that given more time they would be able to reach a decision.
This means at least four of those strong-minded people do not believe it defames a journalist to suggest he would fabricate such basic elements of his story as a visit to a base and a conversation with a commander. They must think journalists do this.
All journalists are accustomed to the jibe that they have made something up. It may not be entirely in jest. Journalists are human, they make mistakes, they are guilty at times of misinterpretation, rushing to judgment, selective emphasis and many other foibles but they do not make things up.
The first principle of journalism, distinguishing it from treatments of history and current events that assume a "dramatic licence", is its strict and abiding commitment to truth.

1 comment:

Celsa said...

This is awesome!

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