by Kennedy Graham
Two years ago award winning New Zealand journalist Jon Stephenson wrote an in-depth article for Metro Magazine about New Zealand’s role in the war in Afghanistan.
The article, Eyes Wide Shut, described the w ay NZ Special Forces handed detainees over to other coalition forces who then sent the prisoners to facilities known to have a history of mistreatment and torture.
The article explained how many of the Kiwi soldiers on the ground were concerned by what had happened and how those at the top of the NZDF ignored them.
Following the articles publication there was a storm of criticism directed at Stephenson. This from the top brass at Defence, to the Minister of Defence, and even Prime Minister John Key.
Others, including the Green Party, considered that, given Stephenson’s past record as a reputable foreign correspondent noted for impeccable research, there was enough in the article to warrant a proper inquiry.
Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, however, issued a statement that incidents outlined in the Metro article were either inaccurate or simply had not happened.
Now, thanks to Stephenson suing General Jones and the NZDF, Jones has formally accepted, in court, that parts of the article attacked by the Defence Force very likely happened as Stephenson outlined them.
This belated acceptance on the Defence Force’s behalf has been welcomed by Jon Stephenson. But to get this grudging acknowledgment, Stephenson has had to wait two years and go through a very expensive court case.
Despite the General’s acceptance that Stephenson did very likely go onto Crisis Response Unit base and discuss matters with an Afghan Colonel, the jury in the defamation trial was unable to agree on a verdict.
The case has raised some interesting information regarding how the Defence Force operates when a story unfavourable to it is published. The claims made by Defence which now appear to have been inaccurate helped blunt the media storm around the original article.
It is time that those working behind the scenes in our Defence Forces concentrated on providing the public with the full facts about New Zealand’s engagement in foreign wars.
The case shows how spin behind the scenes can be used to shut down criticism of our Armed Forces..
It is consonant with other developments in recent years – with Sky City, Hobbittsville, GCSB. New Zealanders need today to be very much on guard concerning the protection of our fundamental rights and freedoms.
In that respect the court case has been a salutary exercise. And the country owes more to Jon Stephenson than just the court case – and possibly more than it realises.