New Zealand police said Thursday they plan to execute search warrants on media outlets as they investigate Prime Minister John Key's claim that he was illegally recorded, a controversy brewing just nine days before national elections his party is expected to win.
A media-law expert said there's no guarantee a judge would go along with the request to seize unreleased material in a country with firmly established press freedoms. But she added that anyone who disseminates illegally obtained information could be punished later.
At least two media outlets say they have copies of the nearly week-old recording, although no one has publicly revealed what Key said. However, there are widespread rumors Key made an inappropriate comment about supporters of one political party while suggesting a change of leadership is needed in another party.
His political opponents want the comments to be made public. Key walked out of a news conference in frustration Wednesday after refusing to answer questions about the recording.
Freelance cameraman Brad Ambrose has said he inadvertently recorded Key talking with a political ally, John Banks, on Nov. 11. The two politicians had invited media to a cafe in Auckland as part of a staged event, then asked reporters to leave while they talked in private.
In media interviews, Ambrose has said he accidentally left a recording device running in a pouch on the table as reporters were hustled out of the venue. Key claims the recording was deliberate.
Two media outlets, TV3 and the Herald on Sunday newspaper, have said they have copies of the recording. Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand reported Thursday they have been approached by police seeking unpublished material relating to the recording, such as interviews with Ambrose. Radio New Zealand says it won't hand the material over.
Police spokeswoman Kaye Calder told the Associated Press that search warrants will be issued at outlets that don't comply with the request to hand over material.
However, police will need to first convince a judge that the material is needed for their investigation, said associate professor Ursula Cheer, an expert in media law at the University of Canterbury.
Cheer said New Zealand laws clearly prohibit the deliberate recording of other people's private conversations, but those laws have never been tested on the media. She said the law generally has been applied in situations such as people spying on their former partners.
"Obviously we live in democracy where the bill of rights protects freedom of expression," Cheer said. "We don't generally have the government interfere with what the media does."
She said that if authorities prove the recording was illegal, media outlets could potentially be found liable if they publish details.
She chuckled at the notion the police actions could have a chilling effect on the media.
"The media seem to be very active on this," she said. "It's a good story that just keeps running and running."