Agents from New Zealand’s national police force ransacked the home of a prominent independent journalist earlier this month who was collaborating with The Intercept on stories from the NSA archive furnished by Edward Snowden. The stated purpose of the 10-hour police raid was to identify the source for allegations that the reporter, Nicky Hager, recently published in a book that caused a major political firestorm and led to the resignation of a top government minister.
But in seizing all the paper files and electronic devices in Hager’s home, the authorities may have also taken source material concerning other unrelated stories that Hager was pursuing. Recognizing the severity of the threat posed to press freedoms from this raid, the Freedom of the Press Foundation today announced a global campaign to raise funds for Hager’s legal defense.
In August, one month before New Zealand’s national election, Hager published Dirty Politics, which showed that key figures in Prime Minister John Key’s National Party were feeding derogatory information about their opponents to a virulent right-wing blogger named Cameron Slater. Hager published evidence in the form of incriminating emails, provided by a hacker, demonstrating coordination between National Party officials and Slater. The ensuing scandal forced the resignation of a top Key ally, Justice Minister Judith Collins, and implicated numerous other National Party officials and supporters. Despite the scandal, the National Party won a resounding victory in the election, sending Key to a third term as prime minister.
On October 2—less than two weeks after the election—detectives from a regional “major crime team” came to Hager’s Wellington home armed with a search warrant authorizing them to seize anything that might lead them to the identity of his source for Dirty Politics. The warrant shows that prior to the raid, a police “intelligence analyst” had studied Hager’s media appearances in an effort to discover information about his sources for the book, taking particular note of references Hager made to knowing the source’s identity.
While there is no evidence that Hager’s work on NSA documents was a factor in the raid, it is possible that authorities knew or suspected that he had been given access to some of those documents. Over the past several months, Hager has exchanged multiple encrypted emails with reporters at The Intercept which, if obtained by New Zealand authorities under a warrant, could have tipped them off to the existence of a relationship. When The Intercept reported last month on the activities of the nation’s surveillance agency GCSB, we made clear that we were working with local journalists on further stories, and it was widely speculated that Hager was the likeliest local candidate for such a partnership. At the time, Key expressed concern that future stories from the Snowden archive could jeopardize the country’s bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Whether or not Hager’s work with The Intercept may have partially motivated the raid, the situation underscores the dangers of using invasive law enforcement tactics against reporters—they impede the reporting process, render source relationships very difficult to protect, and offer the very authorities that reporters are attempting to hold accountable a window into their ongoing reporting. (The Intercept‘s collaboration with Hager will proceed.)
The raid at Hager’s home took place while he was out of town, visiting the University of Auckland to give a series of lectures. Six officers arrived at his home at 7:45 a.m., waking his 22-year-old daughter, who was presented with a search warrant as she answered the door.
Once they entered the property, detectives spent ten hours sifting through Hager and his family’s personal effects, making copies of any USB storage devices they found and seizing Hager’s computer, personal documents, a camera, a dictaphone, CDs, and dozens of other items—not to mention his daughter’s laptop, cellphones, and iPod.
“This was an unusually heavy action for New Zealand police to take against someone in the media,” Hager told The Intercept. “Occasionally police use a warrant to go after a particular piece of evidence held by a media person or organization. But hours of sifting through someone’s files and seizing piles of their materials does not normally occur. It has a strong smell of politics about it.”
Hager, New Zealand’s most well known independent reporter, emphasized the potential damage the raid could have on work that is wholly unrelated to Dirty Politics: “It is disruptive to anyone’s work to suddenly not have their computers and especially an investigative journalist’s work. There is now also the legal battle to get my equipment and files back untouched. There is no choice about fighting it. I have to protect this and other sources for life or why should anyone ever trust me again?”
The New Zealand Police did not immediately respond to email request seeking comment. Hager is challenging the legality of the warrant in court, and the property that was seized remains sealed and unavailable to the police for the time being.
Although he is being represented by pro bono counsel, Hager has already incurred legal expenses reaching into the thousands of dollars, and New Zealand’s “loser pays” provision could subject him to a very large monetary judgment if he loses. The Freedom of the Press Foundation campaign to raise money for Hager is intended to help him fight for the return of his property, challenge the legality of the raid, and defend himself against any potential future threats stemming from his work as a journalist. (The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras are co-founders of the foundation and, along with Edward Snowden and Intercept technology analyst Micah Lee, are also board members; in May, The Intercept‘s parent company First Look Media donated $350,000 to the foundation.)
Press freedoms are under increasing assault in the English-speaking world—there have been similar controversies in the other Five Eyes alliance nations of the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Canada—and the ability of New Zealand police officers to cavalierly raid the home of a reporter who has criticized the government in power threatens to establish a dangerous precedent everywhere reporters operate. A successful campaign on Hager’s behalf would signal that people around the world are willing to defend basic press freedoms and stand against such assaults. Those wishing to do so can contribute to Hager’s defense fund here.
Update: In an emailed statement to The Intercept on Friday, New Zealand Police spokesman Ross Henderson denied that officers were aware Hager was working with leaked U.S. government documents. Henderson insisted that the raid was aimed at seeking information related to the source for Dirty Politics, and added that the police force “has a duty to appropriately investigate matters involving alleged criminal activity, regardless of a person’s occupation or position, and Mr. Hager is no exception.” Whether Hager’s material is covered by laws in New Zealand that protect a reporter’s right to protect his sources, Henderson said, depends on whether Hager “meets the legal definition of a journalist” which “is now a matter for the court to rule on.”