Category Archives: Press freedom

Australian metadata laws put confidential interviews at risk, with no protections for research

By MARK PEARSON

Interviews from a range of sensitive research topics may be at risk. These include immigration, crime and corruption.
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EACH year, academics and students make countless applications for research ethics approval, based on the promise of confidentiality to their interview subjects. Interviewees sometimes offer academic researchers information that might be self-incriminating or might jeopardise the rights and liberties of others they’re discussing.

But Australia’s metadata retention laws can lead to the identification and even incrimination of the very people whose identities academic researchers have promised to keep secret for their work.

Imagine, for instance, a criminologist conducting a project examining white collar crime in banking and financial services. The academic’s confidential interviews with former company directors and executives might elicit specific and revealing answers. It could lead to potential redundancy or even jail time, depending on their vulnerability and culpability.

Under the metadata laws, government agencies make hundreds of thousands of requests to Australian telcos each year for their customers’ phone and internet communications metadata.

For the criminologist, this means relevant agencies can ask telcos to access his or her metadata in the form of call records and computer IP addresses. This means they can identify whether a person of interest has been in communication with the researcher and is the possible source of incriminating material. Other investigations and legal steps might then follow.

Interviews about a range of sensitive research topics may be at risk. These include immigration, crime and corruption, national security, policing, politics, international relations and policy.

The impact of metadata laws on journalists and their sources have been well documented. But we can only wonder how many people will agree to participate in academic research if they are made fully aware of the real potential of being identified by investigators.

Interested?

READ my full article in The Conversation.

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 2019 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

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Submission to inquiry shows journalism educators and students lack metadata source protection

By MARK PEARSON

Australian journalists have a narrow and inadequate protection under national security laws from government agencies accessing their metadata to discover the identity of their confidential sources.

I helped the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia (JERAA) prepare a parliamentary committee submission that explains journalism educators and journalism students do not even qualify for that low level of protection, leaving their confidential sources open to revelation.

Our submission now sits with several others on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security site here.

We have asked that legislators focus on the public interest journalism involved when awarding such defences and protections rather than focussing simply on whether someone is a ‘journalist‘ – an occupation and term difficult to define in the modern era – and used as the default for the rare privileges given.

We have proposed that

existing and proposed protections for ‘journalists and media organisations’ be extended to apply to the research and outputs of journalism educators and their students when they are engaged in ‘public interest journalism’, whether or not they are paid to work as journalists and whether or not their work is published by a ‘media organisation’ in its traditional sense.

We have also asked that the Commonwealth lead a reform initiative to unify all state, territory an Commonwealth media laws across a range of publication restrictions to do away with anachronistic inconsistencies and introduce a public interest journalism defence or exemption so that courts are prompted to balance the various interests at stake before issuing a warrant against a journalist or taking criminal action.

The Committee is now entering the phase of public hearings. See their site here.

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 2019 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

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Danish expert explains European media law #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Danish School of Media and Journalism media law associate professor Thomas Pallesen visited us at Griffith University this month and delivered guest lectures to my media law classes.

We recorded this interview where he explained the European approach to media law, particularly how courts strike a balance between the rights to free expression and privacy.

View the interview here [10 mins 05 secs, produced by Shenil Ranpura, Griffith University].

 

© Mark Pearson 2018

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.

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John Stuart Mill predicted the likes of Trump and the echo chamber #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

A passage by the great philosopher John Stuart Mill in his seminal work ‘On Liberty’ seems prescient almost 160 years after it was published. It offers insights into ‘false news’ in a ‘post-truth era’.

Much has been written about the sycophants who surround some leaders of politics and business, too fearful to suggest that their views might just be wrong or misguided.

In modern times some have suggested that nobody in the White House would dare question or debate the assertions US President Donald Trump emits daily via Twitter and at rallies of supporters. They have called it the “Emperor with no Clothes” phenomenon.

Related to this is the suggestion that social media and modern means of communication adds to the “echo chamber” where we accept as truth the rumours and assertions of those we “follow” or of commentators on the media channels that best suit our world view.

Again, it is said that the echo chamber for Trump and his supporters centres upon information and commentary in Fox News, which he has excluded from his rants against what he labels ‘fake news’ in other media.

While the communication media might have changed since 1859, there is nothing new about this, because Mill warned us of both phenomena in his landmark text.

I stumbled upon the passage this week when researching an address for a conference session and thought it was timely to share it with you here.

It offers important insights into our conceptions of “truth” and adds credence to better education in fact checking and source assessment, not just for journalists but also for the broader citizenry:

Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated … place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of “the world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society … Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; … Yet it is as evident in itself as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.” – John Stuart Mill (1859). On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son. [underscore added by author]

 

© Mark Pearson 2018 and John Stuart Mill 1859

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.

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Our surveillance chapter in the new book ‘In The Name of Security’

By MARK PEARSON

Friend and colleague Joseph Fernandez (Curtin University) and I teamed up to write a chapter on surveillance and the media for a new book published by Anthem Press.

Ours is one of eleven chapters in the book In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism (Anthem, 2018), edited by our journalism education colleagues Johan Lidberg (Monash University) and Denis Muller (University of Melbourne).

For full details and ordering information, please go to the Anthem Press site here.

The book description and our chapter abstract are as follows:

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 saw the start of the so-called war on terror. The aim of ‘In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism’is to assess the impact of surveillance and other security measures on in-depth public interest journalism. How has the global fear-driven security paradigm sparked by 11 September affected journalism? Moves by governments to expand the powers of intelligence and security organizations and legislate for the retention of personal data for several years have the potential to stall investigative journalism. Such journalism, with its focus on accountability and scrutiny of powerful interests in society, is a pillar of democracy.

Investigative journalism informs society by providing information that enables citizens to have input into democratic processes. But will whistleblowers acting in public interest in future contact reporters if they risk being exposed by state and corporate surveillance? Will journalists provide fearless coverage of security issues when they risk jail for reporting them?

At the core of ‘In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism’ sits what the authors have labeled the ‘trust us dilemma’. Governments justify passing, at times, oppressive and far-reaching anti-terror laws to keep citizens safe from terror. By doing so governments are asking the public to trust their good intentions and the integrity of the security agencies. But how can the public decide to trust the government and its agencies if it does not have access to information on which to base its decision?

‘In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism’ takes an internationally comparative approach using case studies from the powerful intelligence-sharing group known as the Five Eyes consisting of the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Chapters assessing a selection of EU countries and some of the BRICS countries provide additional and important points of comparison to the English-speaking countries that make up the Five Eyes.

The core questions in the book are investigated and assessed in the disciplines of journalism studies, law and international relations. The topics covered include an overview and assessment of the latest technological developments allowing the mass surveillance of large populations including the use of drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

Chapter 3. Surveillance and National Security ‘Hyper-Legislation’ – Calibrating Restraints on Rights with a Freedom of Expression Threshold, Mark Pearson and Joseph M Fernandez:

The post-11 September 2001, era has unleashed a plethora of laws invoking national security and antiterrorism justifications that have severely compromised a range of human rights and civil liberties, including freedoms associated with expression and information access. Roach has described such laws as ‘hyper-legislation’ (2011, 310). Such legislation has inflicted often-unjustified constraints upon journalists and journalism. The overly broad antiterrorism laws potentially ensnare reporters covering security matters and have inflicted repeated blows on investigative journalism in recent times (Weisbrot 2016). Insufficient attention, however, is paid to the potential for these constraints to be informed and moderated by the constitutional and human rights frameworks in which such laws are enacted. There has been inadequate resolve to protect the public interest by ensuring that journalists and journalism are able to properly perform their professional duties and obligations. This chapter uses archival research, analysis of statutes and case law to examine how freedom of expression constitutional and human rights provisions in the Five Eyes democracies have, in reality, offered minimal protection to journalists and their sources – particularly in Australia, where a constitutional protection for freedom of expression is lacking. The absence of strong protections or the rampant undermining of existing protections, in the face of what Agamben (2005, 1) describes as an ongoing ‘state of exception’ in the post–9/11 war on terror, presents the need for new mechanisms to provide journalists and their confidential sources adequate protection to enable them to fulfil their professional obligations.

The authors argue that the long-held importance of freedom of expression in democracies moots for workable and explicit public interest defences to allow for the reporting of national security matters without endangering journalists or the sanctity of their obligations to confidential sources. The chapter undertakes a case study of Australia which, unlike the other Five Eyes intelligence alliance members – New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States – has no explicit constitutional or human rights framework to compel the courts or the Parliament to recognize the adverse implications of legislation upon free expression or a free media. The Australian courts and the Parliament have, however, acknowledged free expression rights, drawing upon free expression jurisprudence through the common law; an implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government; and the protocols for a non-binding review of the implications of proposed legislation upon human rights under the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 (Cth). This chapter considers these processes against the backdrop of the First Amendment obligations in the US Constitution, the UK’s free expression protection under Article 10 of its Human Rights Act 1998, guarantees on free expression, free media and free expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the free expression protection in New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act 1990. The authors argue that, while each of these jurisdictions has national security laws that impact upon the media, each enshrines stringent checks upon the impacts of proposed legislation on free expression. The ongoing onslaught against freedom of expression under the banner of the continued state of exception, however, shows that the free expression protections offered by such rights instruments provide minimal protection to journalists and their confidential sources.

The chapter also reviews the use of specific devices to deny journalists and their work appropriate protections in fulfilling their professional duties and responsibilities, and weighs their efficacy in a national security and counterterrorism context. It identifies relevant terminology from case law and legislative instruments including defamation law, consumer law and privacy and shield laws, and assesses their potential value as exemptions or devices to better protect journalists in a national security context. In doing so, it draws upon some examples and cases from those jurisdictions.

Finally, the chapter reviews the extent of journalist and source protections in recent Australian national security laws and draws upon survey research to indicate their impact upon journalists. It recommends a key aspirational threshold that should underpin an objective public interest test to apply to journalism in a counterterrorism legislative context so as to better safeguard free expression, transparency in governance and protection for journalists’ confidential sources.

 

© Mark Pearson 2018

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.

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Defamation research and social media mean it’s time to consider reform

By MARK PEARSON

The Sydney Morning Herald recently published my commentary welcoming the NSW Government’s rethink of defamation law in the light of recent research showing a large number of cases involve ordinary citizens (rather than celebrities) and social media posts (as distinct from media publications).

It was titled ‘Social media gives people a wider audience for their bile – and defamation laws must reflect that’.

Here is the extended unedited version for those with a special interest:

The decision to review NSW defamation laws announced yesterday is overdue, and changes need to address several aspects of the legislation as well as the very human flaws of vindictive remarks, fragile egos and ignorance of the law.

NSW District Court defamation expert Judge Judith Gibson called for reform this week, pointing to the rise of Internet-related defamation cases, a phenomenon unanticipated when uniform defamation laws were introduced throughout Australia in a landmark 2005 reform.

Her argument was underscored by research released last week by the UTS Centre for Media Transition which found that more than half of defamation cases over the past five years involved reputational damage in a digital medium, up from 17 per cent in 2007 when social media was in its infancy.

The common perception that defamation cases typically involve celebrities suing the media for millions of dollars – like recent litigants Rebel Wilson and Geoffrey Rush – is a myth. The study showed that among the 189 decided cases from 2013-2017, only one third of defendants were media companies, and only about one fifth of those bringing the action were celebrities or public figures.

When you read the detail on the cases, it becomes clear that most defamation cases are contests between ordinary citizens over negative remarks they have made about each other on social media, websites, emails and other means of digital communication.

With the advent of social media, everyone is a publisher in the eyes of defamation law – and many more people in far-flung places can see or hear the nasty things we say about each other.

Broken friendships, business disagreements and political or moral debates escalate and get vindictive and personal.

There was the first Twitter case where a misguided former student posted a social media character assassination against a school teacher because he mistakenly thought she had cost his father his job.

And the disgruntled businessman who used the social media platform WeChat and targeted emails to tell the world a meat trader was a conman, corrupt and a criminal, with no factual basis.

And the Victorian junior football umpire with Asperger’s Syndrome who was taunted on a US autism website with falsities that he was a pedophile and was faking his condition.

For centuries there have been some people inclined to write poison pen letters, spread nasty rumours and to post sick messages on public noticeboards and toilet walls. The Internet and social media has given them a wide audience for their bile and some of these now result in defamation trials.

Prior to the 2005 reforms, defamation law in Australia was a complicated mess. Major variations existed across the states and territories on a host of issues, including the limitation periods in which people could bring an action and the defences available. ‘Forum shopping’ was rife, with plaintiffs selecting the jurisdiction where the law best suited their case.

The reforms were remarkable in that attorneys-general in eight states and territories reached agreement and forged the changes through their parliaments.

But those laws are desperately in need of reform if they are to catch up with the social and technological changes of the past decade.

The ‘offer of amends’ system introduced with the last reforms was a novel initiative to keep actions out of court with encouragement for an early offer of damages and an apology. But it is complex, often appealed, and other mediation incentives should be put in place to educate parties about settling their differences earlier to avoid the public and personal expense and distress of litigation. Alternative remedies to damages and injunctions would be a bonus.

The triviality defence is flawed and needs to include something of the flavor of the UK’s “serious harm” test – requiring serious reputational harm as a prerequisite to an action.

Changes also need to encourage public interest journalism rather than punish it.

Journalists deserve a stronger public interest (qualified privilege) defence which does not fail when they refuse to reveal their confidential sources and allows for minor errors in important exposés.

And the truth defence should be narrowed to focus on the single most obvious defamatory meaning to give certainty to the reportage so that lawyers do not generate more obscure meanings a journalist might never have anticipated when researching a story.

The implied freedom to communicate on matters of government – a welcome but technical initiative of the High Court – should be enshrined as a formal statutory defence and satirists should get their own defence to better protect robust political critique via parody and satire.

But in tandem with defamation reforms we need government investment in digital legal literacy. School and adult learning curricula must include the basic legalities of social media and Internet use – stressing the key risks posed by defamatory and contemptuous posts.

Teachers might use some of those moral aphorisms our mothers used to tell us.

They would scold us over our nasty comments with “Do not say to others what you would not want said to you”.

And they would soothe our fragile egos:  and “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Education and mediation encouraging mindful communication might resolve some defamation actions before they even start.

 


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 2018

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Article 10 expert discusses free expression as a human right #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

It was a pleasure hosting two esteemed European media and law colleagues over summer.

Recently retired colleagues Emeritus Professor Dirk Voorhoof (University of Ghent) and Dr Inger Høedt-Rasmussen (University of Copenhagen) toured Australia and New Zealand, visiting law schools and media law colleagues along the way.

They recently formed the Legal Human Academy, an organisation based online from Denmark critiquing media law, human rights and legal education issues.

Professor Voorhoof is an acknowledged expert in Article 10 (free expression) rights and cases in Europe, so I took the opportunity to interview him about this for the benefit of media law students.

View the interview here [14 mins 41 secs, produced by Bevan Bache, Griffith University].

 

© Mark Pearson 2018

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.

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