My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 9 July 2019

by ray goodlass

We urgently need laws to protect press freedom

After weeks of busy commentary, it looks as though we might be getting some action to protect press freedom, though it will be of little real value.

The Lib/Nats coalition government is establishing a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) to investigate the matter, but unfortunately it will be as useful as putting a fox in charge of the hen house, given that the PJCIS will actually be part of the problem it is meant to address.

We don’t need an inquiry to examine the situation behind the raids, and what needs to be done to fix the problem.

As Rebecca Ananian- Welsh reported in the Guardian Australia, researchers at the University of Queensland, together with Peter Greste, are working to assess how the law could better protect both national security and press freedom.

This is a complex process, but much is already known about how the raids were allowed to happen, and what needs to be done to prevent them being repeated, before the research is published.

The raids on the ABC and News Ltd journalist Annika Smethurst’s residence, and the fact that Australian Taxation Office whistle-blower Richard Boyle is facing a prison sentence of 161 years if found guilty all send a clear message: the Australian Federal Police (AFP) is cracking down on whistle-blowers and investigative journalists.

Unfortunately, they also carry much greater meaning: that we need to roll-back the rapidly expanding scope of federal security powers to better protect the health of our democracy.

Since the 11 September attacks in 2001, Australia has gone from zero national counter-terrorism laws to more laws of this type than anywhere else in the world. This process has been helped by our absence of a national charter of human rights.

Without the impediment of legislated rights or freedoms, our national security laws create expansive lists of criminal offences with uniformly severe penalties and confer vast powers on police and intelligence agencies to search, seize, spy, and even detain.

As each new law was introduced, and there are over 60 of them, the Australian people were assured that these measures were necessary to fight terrorism. The vast powers were recognised to be extreme, but they would only be measures of last resort, we were assured.

But these raids clearly demonstrated that some of these powers can and will be harnessed not as a last resort against potential terrorists, but to track down whistle-blowers and to intimidate those engaged in public interest journalism.

This is important because the media gives us the information we need to vote in an informed way. It keeps government accountable through openness and transparency on frequent basis. Everything from policy to the cost of politicians’ travel we know through the media. In an age of fake news and in the only country where the courts cannot provide protection of our rights, the role of a robust, informed, independent press cannot be overstated.

So, what needs to be done? How do we protect public interest journalism from erosion, whether by targeted police raids or by the fear that stifles the bravery it takes to come forward and call out misconduct?

We should enact a federal charter of rights, as the ACT, Victoria and recently Queensland have done. Freedom of speech and the right to privacy are just two rights protected by these charters that are crucial to journalism and democracy.

With or without a federal charter, the government is in a position to make a clear legislative recognition of the importance of a free and independent press to our democracy, requiring that legislation be interpreted and applied in a way that protects the fourth estate as far as is possible and appropriate.

These steps would help, but more fundamentally the government needs to reassess the breadth of our national security law and the agency powers it creates. Better drafting with the benefit of experience and hindsight would narrow the impact of these laws without losing their national security value, something which of course has been touted ad infinitum by both major parties.

In the course of this overhaul, specific protections for the media will be needed. All journalists, not just those associated with large organisations, deserve protection and legislative definitions should reflect this.