Government agencies in democratic countries should provide factual, unbiased information to those accessing their services. That’s a pretty standard expectation. Yet, just recently, New Zealand’s immigration department failed to meet that standard in spectacular fashion.
In late June, it was revealed that the website of “Immigration New Zealand” featured a factsheet which contained an offensive and one-sided narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
The factsheet was supposed to provide people with information about Palestinian refugees coming to New Zealand. However, it literally erased Israel from the map, replacing it with the “State of Palestine”, and presented a series of inaccurate statements which distort the history of the region and the conflict.
It presented Israel as the aggressor and repressor. Hamas was depicted as a normal political party, rather than a recognised terror group, and there was no mention of Palestinian terrorism.
The factsheet came to public attention after domestic Israel-friendly groups discovered it online and contacted media about it. Yet it was international media that picked up on the story and ran with it. New Zealand media was far slower to act and local reports only started appearing after the story generated international headlines.
Once made public, the factsheet prompted a social media outcry which led to its removal from Immigration NZ’s website. An Immigration NZ spokesperson then told media they want the information in their factsheets to be correct and clear and had removed the factsheet to review the information in it.
The Israel Institute of New Zealand called for an apology, confirmation the factsheet did not represent official policy, and an investigation into how the factsheet made it into the public realm.
Israeli Ambassador to New Zealand Dr Itzhak Gerberg wrote to Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway expressing the Embassy’s dismay and concern about the factsheet. Dr Gerberg said the factsheet incited hatred of the State of Israel, as well as antisemitism, and asked the Minister to “ensure that such harmful disinformation about Israel will not be published again.”
Lees-Galloway apologised, saying the map was clearly inaccurate, did not label the State of Israel as it should and did not reflect New Zealand Government policy.
“Immigration NZ will be fully reviewing the content of the fact sheet to correct the errors including and, in particular, the map. The fact sheet will not go back on the Immigration NZ website until a full review has been completed and the information is accurate and clear.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters told media that it was a “rather careless and shoddy mistake” and “the way it was handled was an affront to the Israeli people”. He also said Government would make an apology at a ministerial level if it was considered necessary.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief executive Chris Seed said a new verification procedure will be put in place before maps were placed on Immigration NZ’s website.
Nonetheless, the incident has left lingering concerns for many. Israel Institute of New Zealand director Ashley Church says the factsheet was a grubby piece of biased propaganda which, for some reason, slipped through the usual checking process.
“In my view, it was probably the product of a junior staff member who, in their naivety, was unable to get past their personal views on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Then, once senior staff realised and got involved, it was pulled. But it’s an example of the bias against Israel getting worse.”
Church is also concerned about the slow and, he says, reluctant response of New Zealand media to the issue. “We alerted them to the factsheet’s existence and told them it should be removed when we found out about it. But there was no local coverage until overseas media started covering it. I think there is a general aversion to such issues in the New Zealand media.”
This was not the first time that inaccurate information about Israel has been developed for the public by a New Zealand government agency.
Back in 2004, then New Zealand Jewish Chronicle editor Mike Reagan and David Zwartz of the Wellington Regional Jewish Council, were asked to fact-check an information sheet that a branch of the Foreign Affairs department was proposing to publish for schools.
Reagan says they documented so many errors that the sheet had to be rewritten. “But the second one was only marginally better than the first and we told them so. It turned out there were a couple of Palestinian activists involved and the factsheet was their work.”
In that case, the factsheet was prepared by a group called Dev-Zone, an information centre attached to the Council for International Development. After Reagan and Zwartz continued to air their concerns about it, the person in charge decided to dump it before it went public.
Unfortunately, these incidents illustrate that there is a history of attempts to get partisan, anti-Israel information into the public arena via official government bodies in Wellington. The fact that the latest attempt succeeded – albeit only briefly – is worrying and should be the catalyst for increased vigilance both inside and outside government.