OPINION: While most of the Free Speech Union’s advocacy work focuses on domestic threats to free speech foreign interests are trying to gag New Zealanders, often abetted by New Zealand collaborators with financial reasons for doing the bidding of offshore paymasters.
Good for business, maybe. Terrible for the free speech of Kiwis.
In 2019, Massey University took down posters supporting democratic protests in Hong Kong. Massey University, like most in New Zealand, has promoted lucrative enrolments from China, and academic staff enjoy the sponsored hospitality of PRC institutions.
Two years ago, the FSU took up the defence of Professor Anne-Marie Brady. Her submission to Parliament on New Zealand academic links with research and institutions tied to the Peoples’ Liberation Army of China had resulted in Auckland and Wellington’s Victoria universities asking that she be disciplined by Canterbury University. Professor Brady is an international leader in her field. The attempt to silence her caused uproar among scholars overseas. We believe that our challenge was helpful in quashing that cancel attempt.
With free speech already under threat in New Zealand universities, the last thing we need is foreign states dictating what views can and can’t be shared on our campuses.
The Free Speech Union is closely watching another case that could speak to the influence of foreign regimes on our right to free expression.
An Iranian refugee and dissident who opposes the Iranian regime is being sued by two other Iranian-New Zealanders. They seek restraining orders against him.
As part of his activism against the oppressive regime, he and around 25 other protestors attended a voting booth at a community hall in Western Springs where Iranians living in New Zealand were casting votes for the presidential election back in Iran.
The protesters were filming voters as they entered and left the polling booth. More than 40 videos of the protest group’s interaction with the voters were recorded. It appears to have been an entirely peaceful protest. The police were present and can be seen in several videos but did not intervene at any stage.
Despite this, one of the individuals seeking a restraining order said that the opposition group:
were very disorderly, rude, vulgar, threatening and harassing voters by getting close and taking close-up face shots.
He said at one stage they were a few meters away from the entrance of the polling booth and later “practically blocked” the driveway to the carpark. The videos we have seen don’t support this and being a wide and open carpark, it isn’t clear how the protesters could have “practically blocked” anybody. The accusations continued:
Many people that had come to vote drove away or walked away when they saw the degree of insult, intimidation and violence.
The accuser, however, does not specify any “violence” by the protestors. The accuser goes on to assert that the protesters called him an “asshole” and said “are you relieved now? Murderer, mercenary, Arab lover”. While strong language likely to create offense, nothing here is illegal.
The accusers then say that the videos and photos were posted online to name and shame people who had voted. The dissident’s position is that he has only shared facts and if people aren’t ashamed of voting for this regime, then why should they be ashamed of having their photos and videos of them doing so posted online?
The fact the police were present and didn’t do anything to stop the protestors indicates that their behaviour didn’t cross any lines in terms of legitimate protest. It also is not illegal to film or take photos of people in public places.
The protesters believe it is hypocritical to claim asylum in New Zealand, and then be complicit in the Iranian regimes’ repression by participating in its elections. This is what motivated the protestors ‘name and shame’ campaign. We believe the protesters are fully within their rights, have not broken any laws, and that the court action seeks to suppress legitimate protest.
We understand that the people suing are claiming that their privacy interests outweigh freedom of speech. If so, that has always been the argument of powerful wrongdoers against free speech. New Zealand has more than enough people already trying to suppress freedom of speech.
We should defend new New Zealanders using newfound freedoms here, to highlight what they believe to be collusion with regressive foreign powers. The court should swiftly dismiss this legal harrassment, and order substantial costs against the harassers.
These courageous people need our solidarity, and the Free Speech Union will support them in any practical way we can. As we have seen in the craven submission of many Universities to PRC pressure, this type of censorship also robs Kiwis of different perspectives on world events.
Universities should not be the onshore censorship proxies of foreign powers.
We will update on this case, and others, as more information comes to hand.