While Parliament’s justice committee has raised concerns about inappropriate influence on NZ’s Chinese-language media from abroad, the main media complaints body says it is not the right organisation to handle complex issues of censorship

The Media Council says it has limited resources and ability to look into allegations about the ownership and editorial decisions of foreign language media outlets, despite the Government pointing people in its direction.

Last month, Newsroom reported on concerns that popular Chinese-language news site Skykiwi could be exposing New Zealanders to Chinese state surveillance.

Until July, the terms of service for these forums contained clauses forbidding speech on a range of topics and said that users who violate Chinese laws in their postings could have their information shared with “relevant state agencies”, indicating China’s intelligence apparatus would be able to potentially identify them. It also meant criticism of China’s ruling Communist Party was all but banned.

Responding to Newsroom’s questions for the original story, Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi cited Skykiwi’s Media Council membership as one way for New Zealanders to have their concerns formally addressed.

Speaking on Faafoi’s behalf during Question Time, Andrew Little delivered a similar response to questions from ACT’s Brooke van Velden.

“For news media outlets who are covered by, for example, the Media Council, which Skykiwi is, they have the benefit of the principles and values and rules of that organisation, and methods of recourse if a user considers those rules have been breached.”

But the role of the council, a voluntary and self-regulated industry body first set up in 1972, leaves it little scope to intervene over issues like the one reported by Newsroom.

“Matters of editorial policy, for instance, and in a way this is editorial policy – shall we abide by the demands of the Chinese government?… We do not interfere with editorial decisions like that.”
– Justice Raynor Asher, Media Council chair

Media Council chairman and former Court of Appeal judge Raynor Asher said the body’s focus was on “the published word, what appears on a screen or a piece of paper” rather than decisions made behind the scenes.

“Matters of editorial policy, for instance, and in a way this is editorial policy – shall we abide by the demands of the Chinese government? … We do not interfere with editorial decisions like that.”

While the council had never been asked to deal with a matter like the Skykiwi situation, in instances where it had been approached with concerns about an outlet’s editorial stance on issues like climate change it had chosen not to engage.

Asher said it also had no investigative powers to scrutinise claims such as Chinese-language newspapers “effectively parroting the government line”.

“We are a complaints-driven organisation … a body set up by volunteers, and volunteers give us, by contract effectively, our jurisdiction – we have no power to impose anything on non-members.”

It had established a process for complaints about foreign language media, with any complainant (having first gone to the outlet in question) required to provide the council an English-language translation that the publisher agreed was an accurate rendition.

Any ruling it made would then be translated into the necessary language to reach the same audience as the original publication, with the media outlet bearing the cost as a condition of council membership.

Asked how it would deal with a case where there was dispute over the accuracy of a translation, Asher said that had not been a problem to date but it “might have to contemplate digging into our slender budget and getting a third party involved to translate it”.

“It would be our duty to deal with it, and find a way to deal with it.”

Complaints over CCP ‘infiltration’, Xinjiang and Falun Gong

The council was currently undertaking a review of its complaint principles, and was engaging with media companies and educational institutes to get their feedback, but it was limited in terms of resources to publicise its work to minority communities and the wider country.

Asher said the council was well aware of wider debate about media reporting on China, having received a number of complaints about mainstream media outlets – both accusing pro- and anti-China bias.

The Media Council’s ruling database shows it most recently rejected a complaint against RNZ over a report on suspicions of CCP spies infiltrating New Zealand universities.

While the complainant argued the story had quoted lecturers’ “subjective and obviously biased opinions”, the council ruled there were no facts in dispute while the alleged actions of the people accused of spying “appear highly unusual”.

It has also received complaints about stories on the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, protests in Hong Kong and Falun Gong practitioners.

Speaking to Newsroom for the Skykiwi story, University of Canterbury professor and China expert Anne-Marie Brady told Newsroom media regulations were due for an update.

“Now we know that NZ Chinese media sites are using PRC law to censor discussion of NZ citizens and residents on their websites,” she said.

“The question is, what is the NZ Government going to do about it? Our media laws and governing institutions are already weak, and they are totally un-resourced and unprepared to deal with foreign interference and foreign-state censorship.”

In its belated report on the 2019 local elections, Parliament’s justice committee said it had concerns “about the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech in Chinese-language news media and social media in New Zealand”, citing evidence presented to it about self-censorship by some outlets and social media users.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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