When Dr Philip Nitschke arrived at Auckland airport at the end of January, he was promptly detained by customs officials. Copies of his book, The Peaceful Pill Handbook, were seized. A prominent pro-euthanasia campaigner, he was suspected of carrying a publication proscribed under New Zealand's censorship laws.
New Zealand's government keeps books it regards as dangerous off the shelves, and in recent years has prevented the entry into the country of controversial speakers, including the holocaust denier David Irving. But the impact of this censorial tendency in public life is increasingly a source of rancour.
In 1994 the New Zealand government established the affable sounding Office of Film and Literature Classification, tasked with inspecting material for public suitability. Its remit includes paintings, t-shirts and jigsaws puzzles - and it carries the power to restrict or ban publications deemed not 'in the public good'.
The national Chief Censor, Bill Hastings, last year classified the content of Nitschke's book, which includes details of how to prepare a barbiturate, as “objectionable”. Currently, some 1341 books are classed in this way, and the penalty for distributing prohibited literature is up to a decade imprisonment.
Hoping to persuade Hastings to reconsider the book's status, Nitschke brought an amended version, with pre-agreed offending passages blacked out. “It looked almost comic,” he observes, “though it does make the point of what censorship does to the written word.” Despite making the requested changes, he was detained for over two hours, and had his rights read – though he was not ultimately arrested.
While the book may be banned, it can be read in full by anyone with access to the internet, rendering the ban effectively redundant in a country where over three-quarters of the population is online.
New Zealanders might acquiesce to protection from dangerous ideas, but few seem to regard the inability of lawmakers to take a joke as grounds to restrict expression. Scoffs echoed across the country last summer when a committee voted to forbid the use of parliamentary footage in contexts which denigrate or ridicule MPs. Only the Green party objected to what became known as the satire ban, though polling suggested that 71% of citizens disapproved of the measure.
The future of free expression seems mixed. The turn of the year saw two significant items of legislation come into effect. Enthusiasts for free speech greeted with small cheers the overturning of sedition laws, controversially invoked in recent years, most recently to charge a garage owner for promoting a competition in which the prize was a petrol-soaked sofa.
But the freshly implemented Electoral Finance Act has been interpreted in some quarters as a further erosion of free speech. While it introduces a widely demanded degree of transparency to campaign finance, its sprawling regulatory mandate is provoking the ire of campaign groups and civil libertarians alike.
Thousands marched in Auckland to oppose the act, which limits the ability of groups to campaign during an election year. Organisations not known for their militancy, including the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, expressed deep concern at the restrictions now placed on their right to produce voter guides and pamphlets.
'Kill the Bill' campaign spokesman David Farrar is angered by the broad interpretation of 'electoral advertisement' under the act. “It includes emails, websites (though blogs are exempt), online videos, protest placards, cartoons, posts to internet newsgroups and even theatre performance,” he complains.
Farrar regards the act as indicative of a wider trend towards the regulation of opinionated expression, arguing: “this is part of an ongoing assault on free speech in New Zealand. For example, when newspapers published the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, they were attacked by the prime minister and summoned to a meeting with the Human Rights Commission.”
The momentum of criticism has not slowed. The right-leaning New Zealand Herald recently hit back angrily at claims by both prime minister Helen Clark and her husband that its editorials against the Electoral Finance Act amounted to mischief-making. Clark also rejected its comparisons with neighbouring Fiji, where the government recently deported a leading newspaper publisher, saying: "no one's talking about deporting the editor of the New Zealand Herald for goodness sake."
But Philip Nitschke concurs with Farrar that New Zealand is suffering from a creeping reliance on censorship. “I'm constantly interested in American reactions to our moves in this direction,” he says, “they are amazed.”
Any tendency among New Zealand politicians to compromise public discourse does not appear limited to either the right or left. The conservative National Party opposed limitations on pressure group campaigning, but backed the Labour government's satire ban. Even the Greens, who stood solidly against the satire ban, provided the votes which helped ensure the passage of the Electoral Finance Act.
With everything from campaign slogans to advice on euthanasia available online, both the value and efficacy of such restrictions seem likely to face continued public scrutiny.