New Zealand's election-day gag: no public politics

New Zealand's election-day gag: no public politics

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A heated campaign has been running for weeks in New Zealand, but when people go to the polls Saturday, there will be no discussion of the election in the newspapers, on Twitter or even in song.

At least until the polls close.

Many developed nations try to protect voters from undue influence when they cast their ballots, but New Zealand's gag rules go much further than most.

In the United States, where free speech is constitutionally protected, states can impose limited bans on campaigning at the entrance to polling stations. In many other countries, there are broader bans. But in New Zealand, it's a criminal offense on election day to say or do anything in a public forum that could influence other voters.

That means people can't tweet about whom they voted for. Talking heads on television can't mention something as mundane as a candidate's attire, much less who might win. Political parties are even directed by authorities to "unpublish their Facebook pages." Not only are election billboards banned, so too are political protests, demonstrations and marches.

Robert Peden, New Zealand's chief electoral officer, said the rules are stipulated in a longstanding law which "most New Zealanders value."

"We want to help everyone stay on the right side of the rules on election day," Peden said in response to written questions. He noted a fine of up to 20,000 New Zealand dollars ($16,000) for anyone who doesn't.

Five weeks ago, the Electoral Commission stunned many observers and sparked a lawsuit by effectively banning a song in the run up to the election. Called Planet Key, the song is a gentle satire of the country's wealthy Prime Minister, John Key.

"I'm up here on Planet Key, in the land where the rich are free," go the lyrics to a blues beat. The accompanying animated video depicts Key in various poses, like playing golf with President Barack Obama, or using an endangered dolphin for a guitar while a drone drops a bomb in the background.

The commission ruled the song couldn't be broadcast on radio or television because it was effectively an ad, or program, that might influence voters. Songwriter Darren Watson and videographer Jeremy Jones even had to yank it from iTunes.

In a lawsuit, the men argue the song was nothing more than a light-hearted way to express their political views. They say they never had contact with any political parties or got paid anything for creating it. A judge is expected to issue a decision — after the election.

"It's a constraint on freedom of expression during a time that freedom of expression is more important," said Jamie Whyte, leader of the libertarian Act Party. "I don't know what problem they are trying to solve."

Bill Hodge, an associate professor of law at the University of Auckland, said he disagrees with the commission's decision on the song.

"A sophisticated democracy should be able to tolerate a significant amount of satire," he said.

However, Hodge said he did see merit in the election day gag order as it gives people a period of calm. One problem in the U.S., he said, is that a person in Los Angeles can decide not to vote based on an exit poll from Boston, where races are called earlier due to the different time zones.

Hodge said a big question remains, however, about the equity of the rule for those who vote early for convenience or necessity. More than 500,000 New Zealanders, a quarter of all voters, have already cast their ballots this election.

Peden, the chief electoral officer, said that while the same rules don't apply to early voting, the Electoral Commission does ask for parties and candidates to exercise restraint around voting places. He said he couldn't comment on the Planet Key case because it was still being litigated.

The gag rules are enough to cause headaches for John Gillespie, the head of news and current affairs at Television New Zealand. He said live interviews of reporters are particularly problematic, because someone might slip up and mention a candidate on air. There could, he said, be a camera angle which inadvertently shows a campaign logo, an election sign, or a polling booth.

He said it has become increasingly difficult to police the voluminous content and multiple forums on the Internet and Facebook.

"It may be time," he said, "to reassess what's possible and plausible, and what the intent is."

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