New Zealand is a model for public interest journalism. With market regulation, favourable legal precedents and respect for diversity, the population of 5 million benefits from a high degree of press freedom.
Following serious concerns, in the late 2010s, about media pluralism and editorial independence, the situation has improved thanks, among other things, to the 2020 antitrust laws. The country’s leading news website, Stuff, was able to regain its financial – and therefore editorial – independence after previously being targeted for takeover by major companies. It now faces competition from other online news sites including The Spinoff and The Newsroom. The country’s leading daily, The New Zealand Herald, is owned by New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME), which also owns Newstalk ZB radio. The audivisual sector is dominated by two state-owned media,Television New Zealand and Radio NZ. The latest of many attempts to merge the two was rejected in 2022 as it was felt that the quest for economic synergies posed too much of a threat to news quality.
New Zealand’s democratic system, founded in 1852, establishes strict separation between the executive branch and the press, recognized as a bulwark of the rule of law and the defence of the public interest. The New Zealand Media Council and the Public Broadcasting Standards Authority provide journalists with two self-regulatory agencies whose members are appointed in a process that guarantees their independence.
In the absence of a written constitution and specific laws on the subject, freedom of the press is not legally guaranteed. However, legal precedent establishes that litigation involving the media, for example in defamation cases, be tried in civil court, or, most often, settled out of court. For years, journalists have demanded a review of the 1982 Official Information Act (OIA), designed to guarantee government transparency. In fact, the law grants government agencies excessive time periods to respond to reporters’ requests, and forces news outlets to pay hundreds of dollars to obtain public information. A promised reform process was postponed to early 2021.
The financial viability of many media outlets was seriously threatened by the Covid-19 crisis, which cost some 700 jobs in the sector. In response, the government announced the release of 55 million New Zealand dollars (33 million euros) in aid, in the framework of a Public Interest Journalism Fund.
New Zealand society is wholeheartedly multicultural, with mutual recognition between the Maori and European populations enshrined in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The nation’s bicultural dimension, however, is not completely reflected in the media, still dominated by the English-language press. A rebalancing is taking place, as seen in the success of the Maori Television network and many Maori-language programmes in mass media, such as Te karere, The Hui and Te Ao. New Zealand media also play an important role as a communications centre for other South Pacific nations, via Radio Pasifika and Pacific Media Network.
Journalists work in an environment free from violence and intimidation, although they increasingly face online harassment. The working conditions became tougher in early 2022 when, during protests against Covid-19 restrictions, journalists were subjected to violence, insults and death threats, which are otherwise extremely rare in the country.