Jake Bezzant claims fallout: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says law might need changing

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears to have trumped her Justice Minister in saying an apparent gap in the law should be looked at to better protect people from being harmed online when explicit images are published.

But neither of them mentioned a bill before select committee at Parliament, which already seeks to do that very thing.

Ardern’s comments come as the National Party and its Upper Harbour candidate Jake Bezzant part ways, following allegations that Bezzant had impersonated his former partner online, shared explicit images without her consent, and even pretended to be her to have cyber sex with other men.

Bezzant has rejected the claims, which were aired in a podcast published this week.

Told a summary of the podcast’s contents yesterday and asked if there was any truth to it, Bezzant told the Herald: “No, there’s not, but I haven’t listened to it.”

He added this morning: “Personal relationship break-ups sometimes get messy. Two sides to every story. There is more than just her and I involved so I am going to respect that and so I am not going to discuss it. I am not going to put myself forward for candidacy at this point.

His former partner, Tarryn Flintoft, laid a complaint with police but she said police found no criminal wrongdoing.

Under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, a person commits a criminal offence if posting online content causes harm – but they must also have intended to cause harm.

(There is a lower threshold for civil action, which must only show that harm is done.)

A criminal offence could lead to a two-year jail term or a fine up to $50,000.

Flintoft said the police complaint didn’t lead to any charges because Bezzant’s alleged actions were for his own pleasure.

“Regardless of intent – there IS harm. Ongoing harm. Distressing, violating harm,” she told the Herald.

Asked if the “intent to cause harm” prerequisite was appropriate, Ardern said: “That’s why I’m interested in looking at what may need to be required there. There’s been some debate over, for instance, the issue of revenge porn and whether our own legislation is fit for purpose there as well.

“This is something we do need to take a look at.”

Her comments came minutes after Justice Minister Kris Faafoi told media that it was something that he might ask officials to look at, but he refused to say if it would or should be looked at.

Neither Faafoi nor Ardern mentioned the bill currently before select committee in Parliament, which would make it a crime to post intimate visual recordings of someone without consent.

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said the bill was explicitly aimed at filling the gap in the law.

“People say, ‘I shared these nudes but I was just having a bit of fun, I never intended it for it to be harmful.’

“They therefore don’t meet the threshold under the Act, which seems pretty ludicrous when you consider the harm, which is obvious to any reasonable person.”

Flintoft welcomed Ardern’s comments.

“It’s a shame it takes so much harm before change is initiated but I am pleased to see it is now being looked at.

“If through my experience I can create some kind of change so that others don’t have to feel so vulnerable or let down, it is worth it.”

A Netsafe survey in 2019 found 5 per cent of New Zealand adults – or 170,000 people – had been the victim of online image-based abuse, with instances even reported by people over 70 years old.

Ninety-five per cent of the victims were women.

Meanwhile further allegations against Bezzant have surfaced.

One person, who didn’t want to be named, said he received explicit images of Flintoft from her Snapchat account, but suspected it wasn’t her sending them.

“I don’t know how he got the password. He then started sending me nudes – which I never asked for.

“He wanted to have proof that she was cheating when she wasn’t. I screenshot it and sent it to her, and then he deactivated the Snapchat account.”

Ardern said all political parties were responsible for vetting their candidates “to make sure that we have candidates that meet the high standards that we set for ourselves”.

National MP Chris Bishop said while he hadn’t listened to the podcast and “barely knows” Bezzant, what he’d heard in reports was “reasonably concerning”.

“I think it is fair to say everyone is pretty disappointed by what has happened.”

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