The department demands the news media gets approval to film on public conservation land, if unaccompanied. David Williams reports

A third of the country might be off-limits to camera-wielding media who don’t have an official escort or permission, if a Department of Conservation policy is rigorously enforced.

DoC introduced a mainstream media permit in November 2018, requiring media to get permission for filming, including taking photographs, on public conservation land. It’s been applied haphazardly since, and is only now being enforced.

(The department told New Zealand Geographic magazine a few weeks ago that journalists would need a permit, too, but it subsequently reversed that position.)

Media outlets have expressed surprise and disappointment at the requirement. In a letter to the department, the Media Freedom Committee called it “an unnecessary impediment to legitimate news-gathering activities on the conservation estate”.

Committee chair Miriyana Alexander, of NZME, says: “There was no consultation with media ahead of the permit programme being introduced, and as we understand it, senior DoC management were not aware it had been introduced.”

The committee asked for the policy to be reviewed and DoC has agreed. “We will be asking for some input into that review,” Alexander says, “and will be staying across it.”

DoC says permits are required in the meantime.

Such a draconian requirement throws up weighty issues about the role of the media, and the ability of a Government department to restrict its access to public land when the public interest is at stake. It’s also worth considering how the policy might be wielded by over-zealous managers.

(An example might be DoC’s pursuit of a Japanese photographer last year for using his hobby photos in a self-published book.)

Two magazine editors express their desire to work with DoC, but have been left scratching their heads, wondering, in exasperation, what problem will be solved by the permits.

Irked environmental groups are also concerned at such controls.

Federated Mountain Clubs president Jan Finlayson imagines the policy will be widely ignored. “Media acquiescence to this bureaucratic nonsense would only validate it.”

Conservation lobby group Forest & Bird calls the permits anti-constitutional and unenforceable.

“The public have a right to know what’s happening on their own land,” senior communications adviser Megan Hubscher says. “The media shouldn’t be constrained in reporting important environmental and conservation issues and they certainly shouldn’t have to ask DoC for permission to do so.”

Such a regime creates the potential for interference, she says – from DoC officials or, “for example, from a mining company which doesn’t want its activities on conservation land to be reported on”.

Greenpeace NZ’s executive director Russel Norman picks up that theme, saying it’s anomalous for DoC to restrict media access when it has approved new mines on conservation land – “15, I think, in the last term of Government”.

“It’s an issue of public interest right now, all the harm that’s been caused to the public estate by the DoC-approved mines, and journalists acting in the public interest, one would hope, would want to go in there and take photographs and find out what’s going on.”

In comments emailed the day before the election, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage didn’t want to step in, calling it an operational matter. “It is my expectation that the department would process requests for such activities expeditiously recognising the important role media play on behalf of the public.”

“The permitting system doesn’t recognise journalism is this generative process of discovery that can’t be predetermined at the start.” – Rebekah White

NZ Geographic was jolted by the permit requirement a fortnight ago.

“I was told that I needed a permit on Thursday, and my person was due to go into the field on Sunday,” editor Rebekah White says. “When we were first told about it, I was lying awake at night thinking of how many people and situations I would need to apply for permits for over the next six weeks.” (Although that anxiety was based on bum advice that journalists were part of the regime.)

The magazine has a strong relationship with DoC, considering most issues contain stories featuring the conservation estate. A permit’s never been raised with NZ Geographic before – which highlights the lack of consultation.

In this case, the process worked – it was issued within the 48 hours, allowing the freelance photographer to head into South Island conservation areas with a university scientist. But there are potential pitfalls. What if area managers aren’t immediately available to sign them off? What if the permitting staff are flat tack? Or, heaven forbid, DoC restricts access to avoid controversy.

White was left cold by the experience – fundamentally because it’s almost unheard of for media to seek permission to access public places. “We think we’re on very friendly terms; we work with DoC staff all the time.” She’s been left scratching her head – what is the department trying to fix?

“We’d had no problems raised about either our reporting or our photography by DoC. We’re not aware of any concerns that they may have had about the way that we were conducting those activities.”

Wilderness magazine editor Alistair Hall, who also wasn’t consulted, is similarly vexed and concerned.

Sure, drone-use needs to be regulated, he says (something White agrees with). But other photography? “If you’re just talking about we want to do a story and we want to take some images I think it’s quite ridiculous.”

What worries him is the dozens of stories in his inbox waiting to be published. Will they breach the permit rule? “It would totally change the face of Wilderness – what we do and how we do it.”

White, of NZ Geographic, says the permits restrict journalism in ways that were perhaps unforeseen by DoC. “The permitting system doesn’t recognise journalism is this generative process of discovery that can’t be predetermined at the start – and that’s what most concerns me, that it will limit the freedom of journalists and photographers.”

The practicalities of permits are difficult. The magazine can’t afford to send people to remote locations more than once, White says, as the trips are expensive and time-consuming.

Fundamentally, in White’s mind, allowing journalists in unfettered but demanding photographers get permission makes little sense. Both activities involve someone standing and observing things from a distance, without directly affecting what they’re seeing.

“I’m hoping that journalists and photographers will have the same freedom of movement as the public on public land.”

Are media outlets commercial operators?

The Conservation Act certainly restricts most non-recreational activities on public conservation land. But DoC’s interpretation conflates commercial activities with those of the fourth estate.

DoC’s director of planning, permissions and land Natasha Hayward says under the Act anyone who wants to film on public conservation land “for commercial reasons” needs prior authorisation – and “this includes news media”.

“This is to ensure that DoC can manage the impact of the activity on wildlife and protected areas, assess cultural impacts and ensure that all people, including staff, visitors, and the media are safe.”

DoC’s website says news media need a permit to film on conservation land “if they are covering issues that are topical, timely and in the public interest”. Finlayson, of Federated Mountain Clubs, asks: “Since when was it not the media’s role to investigate ‘topical, timely, and public-interest’ stories?” She adds: “Despite the stated safety-related intent, it seems clear it’s about controlling narratives about events on public conservation land.”

Hayward uses creative language to justify the permitting regime. She says the process for media to comply with the Act was “streamlined” in 2018, to make it “faster and easier”. “It went through a thorough design process with our legal advisors.”

Media on conservation land accompanied by DoC staff don’t need a permit, and covering breaking news in emergencies is exempt. However, when reporters go into the field without DoC staff, they need a permit “to film”, she says.

Minister Sage makes a similar point: “My understanding is that journalists can freely access conservation land on the same basis as the general public, but some activities such as handling wildlife, flying drones, or filming for commercial purposes may need appropriate permissions to ensure there is minimal impact.”

The permits aren’t new, and aren’t intended to be onerous, Hayward says. They just haven’t been consistently applied across the country, and the requirement “wasn’t very clear to media”.

Ten permits – five to newspapers, four for TV, and one to radio – have been issued since November 2018. On October 19, four more were being processed.

Hayward suggests media aren’t likely to leave the office, anyway. “Note that in the vast number of cases the news media ask DoC to source photos for them, or we supply images with media releases.”

Newsroom put several questions to Hayward. What prompted the change? Did media damage protected areas or hurt wildlife? Were media consulted? Isn’t there a danger that journalists who write critical stories won’t get permits?

She replied by email: “I have undertaken to do a review of the process following recent issues raised by some media outlets. The review will ensure that we are supporting the media appropriately within the legislation and will include, among others, some of the questions you have raised.”

(Hubscher, of Forest & Bird, has her own questions. If a member of the public sends a photo to a professional journalist, how is that different from a journalist taking that photo? What if a journalist takes footage while on holiday, but later uses it for a story? Failing to get a permit is a prosecutable offence, she says. “Having said that, DoC’s policy is totally unenforceable and everyone knows it.”)

“Is it going to be like in courtrooms? Are we going to have to take sketches instead?” – Mike Dickison

Wikipedia consultant Mike Dickison wants to be constructive, and to have a good working relationship with the department. He’s just spent six weeks on the South Island’s West Coast, in the employ of the regional development agency, taking photos – including in national parks – and uploading them to Wikimedia Commons under an open licence, for any use.

(“Have I done a bad thing,” he asks, “by taking photos that the media can now use without anyone asking for a concession or permission?”)

Dickison says DoC’s concessions were created to stop people profiting off conservation land – “to stop businesses setting up, you know, hot dog stands in national parks”.

“And now we’re extending it to the activities of the media, who are doing no harm to the national parks. It puzzles me as to how this is justified.”

The boundaries between professional media use of images and personal-private use are extremely blurry, he says. The distinction’s almost moot when the phone in your pocket takes better photos than a professional-level camera of 20 years ago.

Dickison recently visited Lake Matheson, near Fox Glacier, which is world-famous for its mirror images of the Southern Alps.

“As I was there in the morning, six people came out with professional quality camera equipment and tripods, set up since dawn, photographing. Now, were they tourists who’d come around the world to just get that perfect shot to show everyone back home? Or were they professional photojournalists? Or were they planning on producing a set of postcards?

“I couldn’t see any difference between those positions. They all had exactly the same impact on the park, and it seems almost like a theological argument to try and distinguish between someone who’s making money now, someone who’s making money in the future, and someone who’s making money never, if they’re all exactly the same.”

There’s a strong case for any citizen – accredited media or not – to be able to take photographs in public places for any purpose, including commercial use, Dickison argues. Otherwise we might have the bizarre situation where our most treasured landscapes are better protected from commercial photographic use than public statues.

“Is it going to be like in courtrooms? Are we going to have to take sketches instead?”

Tightly controlling photography could be a way for DoC to control the narrative, it’s been argued. Several Newsroom stories involving photos from the conservation estate spring to mind as possible test cases.

In 2018, a leading DoC ecologist (who later quit) was suspended because photos of controversial pipeline work he sent to Forest & Bird were later shared with the media.

Last year, on the West Coast, a millions-of-years old rock overhang was blasted in a national park, and in Arthur’s Pass, dozens of trees were felled in a national park. Both cases were overzealous attempts to protect trampers, when the department’s focus should have been on preserving nature.

The public interest is clear in those stories. What’s opaque is what effect, if any, a permitting regime might have. You could say it throws up a little-known ethical conundrum: If a tree falls in the forest and a media organisation doesn’t run a photo, does that controversy still exist?

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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