New Zealand's military chiefs on Monday denied authorizing illegal spying on an investigative journalist who reported unfavorably on the New Zealand Defence Force's (NZDF) handling of prisoners in Afghanistan.
Acting Chief of Defence Force, Major General Tim Keating, was responding to a report in the Sunday Star-Times newspaper that alleged that the NZDF had obtained copies of journalist Jon Stephenson's phone metadata in Afghanistan.
Keating said in a statement that he had asked senior NZDF officers in Afghanistan if they had spied on Stephenson as alleged and they assured him they had not.
"This includes asking foreign organizations to do this on our behalf," said Keating.
Earlier Monday, Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman on Monday ordered the NZDF to review its defense orders in response to the report's revelation that the Defence Force regarded the country's investigative journalists as a subversion "threat."
Coleman said the order that listed investigative journalists as subversion threats alongside hostile intelligence services and members of subversive organisations was issued back in 2003.
"My view is that the reference to investigative journalists should be removed from this order. It is inappropriate and heavy handed," said Coleman in a statement.
"I have asked the Defence Force to review these particular orders to ensure they are fit for purpose. A review is timely given that these Orders are now a decade old."
Prime Minister John Key, who is also Minister Responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), New Zealand' s foreign intelligence service, had earlier denied the GCSB was involved in spying on Stephenson at the request of the NZDF.
However, the move seemed unlikely quell growing public concern over the activities of the GCSB and government proposals to expand its surveillance powers over New Zealanders.
The opposition Green Party said Monday that Key still had questions to answer as to whether the NZDF had possibly obtained access to Stephenson's phone records from the U.S. National Security Agency through the Prism intelligence network.
"If this in fact was the case, then it strongly suggests that our fears around Prism were correct that data held on New Zealanders by the U.S. National Security Agency via the Prism system could be passed back to the New Zealand government," Green Party Co-leader Russel Norman said in a statement.
The controversy came after thousands of New Zealanders protested at the weekend against Key's proposed GCSB and Related Legislation Amendment Bill.
The GCSB is forbidden to spy on New Zealand citizens and residents, but the government wants to overturn this ban after the agency was caught illegally spying on the communications of German Internet mogul Kim Dotcom.
The founder of file-sharing site Megaupload, Dotcom had his Auckland home raided by police in January last year at the behest of U.S. law enforcement agencies, who are seeking his extradition on Internet piracy, money-laundering and racketeering charges.
A subsequent government report found the GCSB might have illegally spied on more than 80 people.