Paula Penfold, Stuff Circuit, Investigative Journalist | New Zealand

Paula Penfold is an investigative journalist based in Auckland, New Zealand. Penfold reports for the video-led team Stuff Circuit at the country’s largest media organization, Stuff. Her work consistently returns to human rights themes across a wide range of issues. A five-year investigation into the miscarriage of justice Auckland man Teina Pora for rape and murder contributed to the quashing of his convictions; two landmark projects exposed hidden aspects of New Zealand’s role in the war in Afghanistan; and a major 2022 investigation, Fire and Fury, analysed the motives of the key players in New Zealand’s “freedom movement”, whose occupation of the country’s Parliament grounds ended in a violent riot. Stuff Circuit’s work is frequently awarded both nationally and globally, and Paula Penfold was named New Zealand’s broadcast reporter of the year in 2022 and 2019.


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Event Title: SDGs Conference 2023 Date: Sept 20, 2023


Gender-based violence and violations against women journalists

Tēnā koutou katoa, a greeting in te reo Māori to acknowledge you all. 

People probably think nothing bad happens in New Zealand. The World Press Freedom Index for 2023 ranks New Zealand 13th. We are described as a model for public interest journalism. We apparently benefit from a high degree of press freedom. It is true, relatively speaking. No journalist has died in New Zealand because of our profession. There are no state-sponsored invasions of reporters’ homes or extrajudicial imprisonments.

Unfortunately, the World Press Freedom Index is wrong when it says journalists in New Zealand work in an environment free from violence and intimidation. Increasingly, there is an insidious threat, but it is not the state that is the problem. It is our fractured society, and a growing distrust, and more than that, a growing hatred towards journalists, a hatred borne disproportionately by women journalists. 

Given my brief is gendered violence, I want to step back, briefly, to 2013, when my colleagues and I began investigating a man’s wrongful conviction for rape and murder. I work in a small team and I was the only woman. So when an email arrived saying I was “infatuated with the convict” I took note. My male producer did not receive the same email. I found it distasteful but I put it to one side. 10 years on, if only things were that quaint. 

Last year we investigated the worst spreaders of mis- and disinformation in New Zealand for a documentary we called Fire and Fury. It came about because of a protest inspired by the trucker’s convoy in Canada. So-called “freedom movement” protestors converged on the capital, Wellington, and set up camp in the Parliament grounds. We were familiar with some of the key players and we knew it was not, as they maintained, a protest of “peace and love”. It was a recruitment drive and it radicalised ordinary New Zealanders. 

When we started to see some of the leaders use the term “ungovernable” — and others call for a military coup — we decided we needed to start filming, on a day which, coincidentally, was the day the police made their final move. It turned into a riot the likes of which our country had never seen before, in the very seat of our democracy. When we have reported in countries like Afghanistan we receive security training, of course, in order to try to keep ourselves safe. We used that training more in Wellington that day than we ever did reporting in Afghanistan, the Philippines or Mexico; countries where just being a journalist can put a target on your back.

We were abused and threatened. We were made to leave the protest by an angry, threatening group, who physically escorted us out, in spite of the fact that we were clearly entitled to be there to report. We went back in, and once the fires started and the gas canisters were exploding, we found ourselves in a no man’s land between advancing riot police and enraged protestors, it was time to go. Our security training had drilled into us to always have an exit route.

The violence and intimidation that day was directed at all journalists. But what came in the wake of the documentary was plainly gendered, most of it was directed at me. It is also obvious from the language. Most of it is too offensive to repeat here. But I thought it might be instructive for you to get a largely sanitised sense of it. I apologise for the tone of what remains, but it is authentic. 

From Joseph: “You are a complete piece of s…. You are lucky we do not meet. F you, [insert offensive term for prostitute]! The sooner you die the better.” 

Peter agreed. “Even more citizens are aware of how much of a [c-word] you actually are. Eventually, your kids will despise you. What a lying piece of shit you are.” 

And Sean simply said: “Wake up Paula. We are growing. We are GROWING. And you will all burn.” That’s a very small sample. But you get the idea. 

When I was informed by a source that one of the subjects of Fire and Fury had my home address, my company put my family and me into hiding while we beefed up the already improved security at home. This happens in Aotearoa New Zealand, where we pride ourselves on press freedom, the 13th best in the world. 

We do report some of these threats to the police, and sometimes a constable from the local station will ring and say “Do you feel safe at the moment” and you will say: Yes, I guess. That is the end of it. No proper inquiry is ever made. Those of us who are frequently updating our police 10-5 file, as it is known, with the latest threats all the file will be useful for is to help police with their investigations in the event of our premature deaths. 

New Zealand, like many other jurisdictions, is not legislatively equipped to deal with this new violent, threatening world order. On the rare occasions people are charged, it does not necessarily play out how it should. One person we investigated for that documentary was arrested in March last year on charges of threatening to kill then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. He also has me and other journalists on his Nuremberg list of those he says should be brought before a military tribunal for crimes against humanity. He was released on bail but failed to turn up for his next court appearance, and he has been on the run ever since. Police will not tell us what they are doing to try to catch him.

Male journalists are abused, too, of course, and put on Nuremberg lists. But the research shows they do not suffer the same degree of abuse and harassment as women do, nor the sexually violent abuse. It is worse, as usual, for women of color.

It becomes even more concerning in light of research commissioned by New Zealand’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet into COVID misinformation. It surveyed 2000 people and found, disturbingly, that 8 percent believed threatening to hurt someone is an acceptable way to achieve change. The same survey revealed that 54 percent of respondents who strongly believe in misinformation have avoided or stopped watching or reading mainstream media. 

The tentacles of the “fake news” narrative have reached all the way to the South Pacific and they are strangling us too. I have come to realise this is not happening in spite of New Zealand being a liberal Western democracy. It is happening because we are a liberal Western democracy. It is all part of the same continuum and the same mechanisms through which we are seeing a rise in authoritarianism throughout the world. 

What’s the result? A chilling effect, obviously. This is where so many of us as journalists struggle because of course, we do not want to be silenced. And yet every time we put our heads above the parapet, particularly on social media, and no matter how strong your blocking game, the attacks begin. So consciously or not, you reduce your presence. You think — and think again — about telling some stories. It is driving some journalists from the industry. 

When you consider that misogyny is not only or necessarily hatred of or towards women, it’s the control of women, this is a victory for those who wish to silence us and the stories we wish to tell. 

Senior media figures are worried about it, of course. My former boss, a 30-year veteran, wrote in a piece last year that when the ballistic grading of the windows at one of our newsrooms was discussed at a senior management meeting he realized things had changed. They see the online threats against us and the stress that engenders. They too worry about whether or when those threats transfer to real life. 

What do we do about it? Rebuilding trust in the media is key, not just for our financial survival but potentially our literal survival. Being transparent about our processes. Advocating in each of our jurisdictions for better legislation to protect us in the face of increasing violence. Encouraging media literacy through a whole-of-society approach. This problem does not just affect us as individual journalists, it undermines the very foundation of our role in democracies, and we can not fix it alone. I do feel encouraged that while hate and distrust, gendered, and all forms of violence towards journalists, are at unprecedented levels, the craft remains and continues to be pursued with excellence. I stay — in spite of it all — because I believe what we do matters.

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