New Zealand Disputes Report That It Spied on Journalist

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -

New Zealand on Monday disputed a newspaper report saying its military conspired with U.S. spy agencies to monitor a freelance journalist in Afghanistan, a report that has provoked concerns over how surveillance programs revealed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden might be used to spy on reporters.

The New Zealand government said Monday there is no evidence to support a report in the Sunday Star-Times newspaper that the military was assisted by the United States in monitoring the phone data of journalist Jon Stephenson, a New Zealander working for the U.S.-based McClatchy news organization.

The report is the first indication that the NSA’s techniques may have been used to spy on a journalist. It challenges U.S. claims that the NSA programs were not used to target specific individuals, but rather to compile large pools of usage data.

Prime Minister John Key fanned the debate Monday by saying it is possible that reporters could get caught in surveillance nets when the U.S. spies on enemy combatants. New Zealand and the United States are party to a five-country agreement on sharing intelligence information.

U.S. surveillance programs have become the focus of a global debate since Snowden, a former defense contract worker, leaked classified information about the NSA in June. The U.S. says the NSA programs are necessary to avert terror attacks, while critics have called it unregulated spying.

Military officials in Wellington were quick to reject the claims in the article by freelance investigative reporter and liberal activist Nicky Hager. He wrote that the military became unhappy at Stephenson’s reporting on how it treated Afghan prisoners.

“We have identified no information at this time that supports Mr. Hager’s claims,” Maj. Gen. Tim Keating, the acting defense force chief, said in a statement.

Also Monday, New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman acknowledged the existence of an embarrassing confidential order that lists investigative journalists alongside spies and terrorists as potential threats to New Zealand’s military. That document was leaked to Hager, who provided a copy to The Associated Press. Coleman said the order will be modified to remove references to journalists.