NZ MPs Resort to Private Security as They Face Increasing Threats

A new survey of New Zealand politicians has found all forms of abuse against MPs increased in 2022 compared to a similar survey undertaken in 2014.

While threats were already an issue for New Zealand MPs the last time they were asked in 2014 (before the pandemic), they now have a far greater fear of a fixated person hurting or killing them or members of their family.

As a result, they’re reducing the time spent in public, fearing being home alone, changing their routines and losing time from work as levels of result of abuse and harassment rise, a current update to the research reveals.

The academic journal Frontiers in Psychiatry surveyed 54 MPs in 2022. It found threats had increased, and were more disturbing than when it conducted a similar study in 2014.

It found almost all forms of harassment had increased significantly over the period.

Most MPs reported experiencing abuse related to the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic (lockdowns and vaccine mandates). Many commented that the frequency and intensity of abuse has not subsequently abated despite the ending of pandemic policies.

Harassment over social media and harassment by letters and emails were the two most common forms of harassment (both 96 percent), followed by public approaches (82 percent), distribution of malicious material (73 percent), and alarming behaviour at the electorate office (62 percent).

Threats of Violence

Of those harassed over social media, half had been specifically threatened, including threats of physical violence (40 percent), sexual violence (14 percent), threats made towards their family members (19 percent), threats towards staff (12 percent), and death threats (27 percent).

Number reporting experience/ total responses 2022Percentage reporting responses in 2022Percentage of responses in 2014Difference between 2022 and 2014
Inappropriate social media contact52/5496 percent60 percent36 percent
Inappropriate letters, faxes and emails50/5296 percent68 percent28 percent
Inappropriate telephone calls29/5256 percent45 percent11 percent
Alarming behaviour at electorate office31/5062 percent62 percentNil
Unwanted approaches42/5182 percent50 percent32 percent
Distribution of malicious materials38/5273 percent48 percent25 percent
Threats to harm33/5263 percent48 percent15 percent
Loitering23/5244 percent28 percent16 percent
Following behaviour21/5042 percent22 percent20 percent
Property interference22/5143 percent31 percent12 percent
Spurious legal action10/5120 percent11 percent9 percent
Physical attack (actual or attempted)9/5118 percent15 percent3 percent

Women were at significantly higher risk of certain types of social media harassment, including sexualised comments, threats of sexual violence, and threats toward their families.

The authors from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago and Mental Health, Addiction and Intellectual Disability Services at Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand note that politicians were at greater risk of being physically attacked by those who harass them compared to other public figures.

“This small but significant risk has been starkly highlighted over the last decade by fatal attacks on politicians, resulting in the deaths of Jo Cox and David Amess (United Kingdom, 2016; 2021), Walter Lübcke (Germany, 2019), and Shinzo Abe (Japan, 2022),” they said.

“The anonymity of the digital landscape can embolden some users to engage in aggressive, derogatory, and threatening behaviour, directed towards people with viewpoints that diverge from their own.”

The Journal notes that the rise in harassment of MPs had led to the establishment of the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre New Zealand (FTACNZ), a multidisciplinary collaboration between health, police and the Parliamentary Service to provide intervention to manage the threats presented to MPs by fixated people.

However, even with this in place, almost a third (28 percent) of MPs, who were surveyed in 2022 had turned to private security companies for help.

Changing Landscape Since COVID-19

The study quotes several overseas research papers, conducted before the pandemic, on the same topic. Over 49,000 MPs answered questions on the level of harassment.

The COVID-19 has since changed the landscape, they added.

They noted that New Zealand enforced a “particularly stringent lockdown” that resulted in significant distress within the community.

“During the pandemic, there was concerning evidence of proliferation of violent, misogynist, and extreme rhetoric directed towards politicians that seeded on telegram channels and spread across other internet platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram,” they said.

The nearly month-long protest against vaccine mandates on Parliament grounds that ended in forceful eviction by police on March 22 was highlighted.

“Throughout the occupation, some protestors advocated for the public trial and execution of prominent politicians for ‘crimes against humanity,’ and the protest ended in a violent riot, with police officers attacked, and public property burnt and damaged.”

Then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was a particular target, the study found, with “posts classified by language analysis programs as negative, hateful, sexually explicit, or toxic [appearing] at a rate over 50 times higher than any other person studied” between 2019 and 2022.

“From its establishment in July 2019 up until the time of Ms. Ardern’s resignation, 53 percent of all referrals to FTACNZ arose from individuals who either targeted her individually or as a prominent figure in their concerning and threatening communications,” the study found.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern makes a statement on North Korea’s missile launch during the 2022 APEC meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. 18, 2022. (AAP Image/Pool/Mick Tsikas)
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern makes a statement on North Korea’s missile launch during the 2022 APEC meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. 18, 2022. (AAP Image/Pool/Mick Tsikas)

Actual or attempted attacks were reported by 18 percent of MPs and almost half (48 percent) had been threatened with physical harm.

Examples include: “Someone came to electorate office wanting to stab me. Police intervened,” and “I was told I was responsible for the deaths of [redacted, not COVID related] and I would be captured and hung as a result.”

The impact on those harassed included fearfulness for their safety (reported by 72 percent), a reduction in social outings (40 percent), concern about being alone at home (24 percent), a change in daily routines (41 percent), a change in personal relationships (18 percent) and lost time from work (10 percent).

MPs reported they’d sought help from different sources, including the Parliamentary security enablement team, police, or a private security company. However, they felt there was insufficient support and that additional support was needed.

“The security response from Parliament … is poor with little meaningful support provided given the enhanced risk,” one said.

‘We Are Significantly Vulnerable’: MP

Another MP said the consistent message was that MPs were “significantly vulnerable” and Parliament lacked resources and effort to keep them safe.

“It is not reassuring to hear colleagues talk of ‘not if but when’ an MP is seriously harmed, and that when this happens, there will be a report commissioned that says exactly what we have been saying over and over to deaf ears for far too long,” the MP said

The researchers conclude that simply monitoring and reporting on the issue was “not appropriate.”

“MPs were clear that they and their staff require support and resources to manage these threats. This necessitates a multi-pronged approach and expansion of existing services,” they said.

“For new politicians, de-escalation, safety, and cybersecurity training should be part of the induction package, and resources made available to increase home and office security measures.”

They also highlighted the difficulty in moderating content online.

“There needs to be greater engagement with technology companies and the development of algorithms that can quickly identify and remove dangerous content, but achieving this is not simple … but complex issues such as balancing free speech and security … means that progress has been slow.”

 

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