Actions against media send international message

By MARK PEARSON

Just as Australia was regaining international respectability for its approach to media freedom, three recent events stand to undermine any progress.

The incidents were the arrest by Queensland police of a Sydney Morning Herald reporter and seizure of his computer, the elevation to ‘critical’ of the official alert level for journalists trying to access immigration detention centres, and the NSW Crime Commission serving subpoenas on two Fairfax journalists.

Each sends its own message of censorship and repression to the international community just when Australia’s reputation was being restored with the introduction of better freedom of information laws and federal shield laws for journalists and bloggers.

SMH deputy technology editor Ben Grubb was arrested after his article exposing Facebook’s privacy controls included material he had gained from an interview with a security expert who had told a conference how he had accessed photos of a rival’s partner without her permission.

It was reported by The Australian to be the first time a journalist had been arrested under an obscure provision of Queensland law related to ‘receiving tainted property’.

The chilling formality of the police interview with Grubb while he was under arrest is on the SMH website .

While there was no indication of police wrongdoing, the episode triggers recollections of darker times in the relationship between Queensland police and the media in the late 1980s which prompted the watershed Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in that state.

It also follows just two months after two other Fairfax journalists were caught in the middle of a dispute between two enforcement agencies in the neighbouring state of New South Wales.

The NSW Crime Commission, under investigation by the Police Integrity Commission, demanded source information from two Sydney Morning Herald journalists and their parent news group.

Reporters Linton Besser and Dylan Welch wrote articles critical of the Crime Commission and it ordered them to surrender their cellphones and SIM cards in a bid to discover their sources.

It also demanded that anyone within Fairfax reveal any communication – either directly or through intermediaries – with the Police Integrity Commission or any of its staff over the past year.

Refusal would have placed the journalists at risk of contempt charges, but the commission later withdrew the demands under pressure. The correspondence at the ABC Media Watch site makes fascinating reading.

Australia is also in the international spotlight for its border control policies and related human rights issues. That reputation was not improved when it was revealed on the ABC this week that the company handling the Immigration Department’s refugee detention facilities had upgraded to ‘critical’ the alert level for journalists trying to get access to the centres.

This followed a Sixty Minutes episode when reporters were refused access to an immigration facility.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison criticised the media policy and said it ranked journalists’ unauthorized access “…as critical as a bomb threat, a chemical weapon, a riot or even the tragic death of someone in a detention centre”.

Yet the new media clampdown will also invoke memories of Mr Morrison’s own party’s spin and cover-up of the so-called ‘children overboard’ affair a decade ago when they were in government, as outlined by a Senate inquiry.

Australia already lags behind most western democracies in its lack of any explicit right to free expression or a free media in its Constitution. These actions against journalists, combined with the government’s continued advocacy of a mandatory internet filtering scheme, send the message to the international community that Australian state and federal authorities do not place a high value on free expression.

They also undermine Australia’s diplomatic position when it attempts to influence the media policies of more repressive regimes.

* Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. He tweets from @journlaw and blogs from journlaw.com

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer! My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2011

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