We went to a house concert last night in Hawea. House concerts allow musicians to continue to earn a living from live music, at a time when most larger concerts are being cancelled. It was a lovely evening with around 30 people sitting on the grass outside. It was hard to imagine that, as we listened to Jed Parsons (and occasionally his children’s music alter ego Jeff Parsnip) entertaining us, people in Kyiv were huddling in subways and basements as Russia attacked their country and city.
If you live in New Zealand it is likely there are a considerable number of people worse off than you elsewhere in the world. We all focus on our own reality, because anything else makes little sense. However, there appears to be a particularly stark contrast between being a protestor against mandates in Wellington and a protestor in Russia against the invasion of Ukraine. In Russia, it is reported around 1800 protestors against the Ukraine invasion have been arrested in the last 2 days. One feels it would be a very brave person to be visibly protesting in a place where saying “No to war” gets you hauled away by the police. There are no protestors against invasion in Ukraine itself, people are too busy fighting off the Russian invaders. In New Zealand, on the other hand, protestors get to have a festival outside Parliament.
A festival? There are always multiple sides to any one story, but two friends who viewed the protest recently both commented on how it looked like a festival (noting that n=2 does not have any scientific or statistical validity). What was more interesting, is that only one of the two saw the ‘festive nature’ as a good thing.
The first friend observed the protest from inside Parliament buildings. They saw a group of people having a good time in a somewhat incoherent mass. They said, “It’s time those people went home, after having a nice party.”
The other friend visited the protest itself, taking images and film that they showed us. This friends thinks the protests are important and have meaning and that the majority of the people present were earnest and relatively united in their anti-mandate cause. The pictures we were shown certainly looked like a festival (apparently, logistics are being managed by people who organise large music festivals). This friend thought the positive side of a protest looking like a festival is that people are getting on well with each other and there is no atmosphere of violence.
This friend originates from a country where freedom of speech and information has not been a given in their lifetime. The considered that the true story of the protest is not being told by the media and stories of misbehaviour and violence are being inflated at best, and at worst are patently untrue. For example, media focused on graffiti created by one person where protestors were actively removing the graffiti after it was briefly visible. The media used a picture prior to the removal effort and never mentioned the removal. Another example – reporting of protestors throwing a substance at police while there are counter claims that the ‘substance’ was police being affected by their pepper spray their own force were using. No evidence has been provided for the truth of either scenario, but the media has weighed on the side of the police. Being able to trust media reports is essential to making fair judgments about what is happening; it is worrying that the veracity of reporting is not entirely clear.
Our pro-protest friend suggested that the media bias results from media being bought by government (of course he is not the only one suggesting that). I suggested that the media is more likely to be ‘bought’ by the people. Government provides some competitive media funding through NZOnAir, however most media sources need a lot more than government money to survive (and some don’t get any government money). A considerable number of NZ media outlets are overseas-owned, with income dependent on advertising.
If government is only one of your many sources of money, a very small source, or not a source at all, it is unlikely that organisations will skew their reporting to what government desires. Further, there is no evidence that the New Zealand government has any power beyond funding/not funding, in contrast to Russia where, supposedly, the state has influence over the vast majority of media outlets). New Zealand is not known for silencing or imprisoning people who speak out against government. In contrast, in Russia currently, journalists are being labelled ‘foreign agents’, in an attempt to silence independent reporting. Independent organisation Reporters without Borders ranks New Zealand as having one of the most free presses; we get labelled ‘Good’ where Russia is labelled ‘Difficult’ (second rank from bottom).
The most important factor in having a functional country is to have a continuously active system of checks and balances between all the different entities – government, NGOs, companies, public. To this end, I found the overturning of the mandated vaccination of defence force and police staff by the High Court yesterday, a really positive feature of our system. We have a mechanism through which people can and have protested vaccine mandates The mechanism has made a ruling in a timely manner relative to the mandates (i.e. not taking so much time that the mandates are over before it makes a decision). The mechanism has found that the government mandate should not be upheld by the law.
The ruling made it clear that the High Court recognises the utility of vaccines in slowing spread of disease and preventing severe illness. However, the particular mandate in question was brought in to ‘maintain continuity of the police and defense force services’. The High Court did not believe the mandate was necessary or useful to maintaining continuity of services, therefore overturned it. The High Court also questioned whether the mandate ever was important to maintaining continuity.
New Zealand isn’t perfect, but we have not hauled large numbers of Parliament protestors away to jail, their messages have not been shut down online, and our High Court is overturning relevant government decisions. I will remain thankful that I get to live in this country, while acknowledging that we always need to remain vigilant because our freedoms can be eroded while we are distracted by the immediacies of life.