Time for a Media Freedom Act
“When the government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering up?” asked the front page of last Monday’s Daily Advertiser. It went on to say that “Is this really Australia? Where the government imposes news restrictions, secrecy, jail time for journalists and whistle blowers”.
The short answer is of course that it really is Australia. In my column today I’ll explore why Australia is frighteningly aping George Orwell’s 1984 dystopian nightmare, and what we need to do to rectify sorry state of affairs.
But first, a quick comment that points out the enormity of the problem we face. It takes a real emergency to unite the right-wing Murdoch press; the mainstream centrist media such as the ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Advertiser; the slightly progressive such as the Guardian Australia; and the leftists, such as Crikey.com. But united they are, and justifiably so.
So last Monday they joined forces to rally for press freedom, taking the campaign to their front pages and the airwaves.
Their Right to Know coalition, of which the ABC is a member, is behind the campaign, calling for the decriminalisation of public interest journalism, and greater protection for the media and whistleblowers.
It follows the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raiding the Canberra home of News Corp political journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC’s Sydney headquarters earlier this year.
The police investigations were sparked by separate stories published by Smethurst and the ABC’s Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, based on leaked classified information.
The Right to Know coalition’s campaign argues that without a free press, issues such as the serious allegations of misconduct and abuse that led to royal commissions into the banking and aged care sectors would never have been brought to light.
Adding to the media concern were recent comments from Attorney-General Christian Porter, who issued a ministerial directive that any prosecutions of journalists would have to be signed off by him first.
More recently he told the ABC’s Insiders program he could not guarantee Smethurst, Oakes and Clark would not be pursued in the courts. More on this later in the column.
To which Senator Hanson-Young, who is chairing one of two parliamentary investigations looking in to press freedom said “A free press and protection for whistleblowers who speak truth to power is essential for a robust and healthy democracy. Journalism is not a crime and legislation should protect them, not criminalise them.”
Truth is, “Concrete action rather than nice words are needed on press freedom”, as the Guardian Australia noted.
Paradoxically one day Australians might come to thank the AFP for their raids on the ABC and the News Corp journalist, the public integrity professor AJ Brown suggested during the Senate inquiry last week. For even though the raids were condemned as outrageous and heavy-handed Brown was observing that they have also finally focused national attention on the rising tide of laws inhibiting press freedom and public interest whistleblowing.
For now, though, his optimism is premature, for the journalists do not know whether they will be prosecuted, and their employers are still challenging the warrants in the high court.
Australia’s major media organisations are therefore joining forces to demand a minimum set of changes. Their Right to Know campaign has six core demands: the right to challenge the government’s application for warrants against journalists and media organisations, before they are issued; exemptions for journalists from laws that would put them in jail for doing their jobs, including the security laws enacted over the last seven years; adequate legislated protections for public sector whistleblowers; a new regime to limit which documents can be stamped secret; reform of the freedom of information regime, and reform to laws that make Australia the defamation capital of the world.
The former Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, who heads the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, thankfully goes further by advocating a Media Freedom Act to enshrine press freedom in legislation and more clearly define its democratic role.
That seems a straightforward proposal that even the most dunder-headed politician could get their head around. Given that many of our politicians, from the PM down, seem to be aping President Trump’s contempt for serious journalism it’s a campaign we should all be endorsing.