While the “review” of
Australia’s new sedition laws continues, the old sedition laws have
just been given a workout in New Zealand. Tim Selwyn was convicted
yesterday in an Auckland court of “publishing a statement with
seditious intent”, although he was acquitted of the more serious charge
of “being party to a seditious conspiracy.” He is now free on bail
pending sentencing; the offence carries a maximum of two years’ imprisonment.

Selwyn’s
conduct doesn’t inspire great sympathy: he was part of a protest that
threw an axe through the window of Prime Minister Helen Clark’s
electorate office in 2004. But that’s not what he was convicted for –
according to the reports he had “earlier admitted to conspiring to
commit wilful damage” (how could anyone conspire to commit non-wilful
damage?). The sedition charge arose from a leaflet that he distributed
afterwards claiming responsibility for the axe incident and calling on
“like minded New Zealanders to take similar action of their own”.

That
sounds rather like incitement to violence, although Selwyn says the
phrase was taken out of context and was only intended to encourage
civil disobedience. But if it was incitement, it should have been
prosecuted as that, instead of relying of the vaguer and more sinister
“sedition”. While Selwyn was engaging in hyperbole when he said that it
put New Zealand “in a league with Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Malaysia”,
the chilling effect of such charges on freedom of speech should not be
underestimated. The same goes double for Australia’s updated sedition
offences, which are more far-reaching and carry harsher penalties (up
to seven years in jail).

There’s some disagreement about when
the last prosecution happened for sedition in New Zealand, but it’s
clearly a long time ago. The Age says Selwyn “was the first New Zealander since the early 20th century to be charged with the crime”, but the New Zealand Herald
has found a case from 1942 when the editor of the Christian Pacifist
Society newsletter was jailed for two years for “editing, publishing
and attempting to publish a subversive document”.

Peter Fray

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