Ethical lessons from the 60 Minutes abduction saga

By MARK PEARSON

International readers of this blog might be unaware of the national debate in Australia over the involvement of an Australian 60 Minutes television current affairs crew in last month’s abduction of two children in Lebanon who were the subject of a parental custody dispute.

The Australian mother of the child – Sally Faulkner – and the reporter Tara Brown and her three crew were jailed for two weeks along with the alleged abduction contractor Adam Whittington who remained in jail seeking bail this week.

The Nine Entertainment Company announced an investigation into the circumstances surrounding its flagship current affairs program’s involvement in the failed abduction attempt.

Following that announcement (April 21, 2016) ABC Gold Coast’s Matt Webber interviewed me about the ethical dimensions of the saga.

Here is the recording of that interview. [Transcription below by Virginia Leighton-Jackson].

SoundcloudInterviewScreenshot

Interview with ABC Gold Coast’s Matt Webber

Matt Webber: Let’s concentrate on the Nine Network for now. What are the main questions it needs to answer?

Mark Pearson (@journlaw): Well Matt, I think in your introduction you started to hit upon the main questions, and I think they’re questions that need [answering] – I mean hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s very easy for an academic like me to be looking at this in hindsight and saying all the things that should have been done. But the sorts of questions that you were just asking [are relevant] – Who is involved? Who are the stakeholders? Who are those who might get hurt through such a story? The first thing Channel Nine should be doing, I believe, is setting up accountable systems where those questions are actually asked before stories are embarked upon. And that involves…

MW: Are we naive to think that wouldn’t happen?

MP: I don’t think so; I think people would get carried away, and particularly in a highly emotionally charged story like a custody battle it’s very easy to hear one party’s side of the story. Another issue here is of course is the simple fact of obeying laws. Now, there seems to be like a cultural view that has come through this story that going to another place, the ‘other’, a place like Lebanon, excuses journalists from doing what would be absolutely illegal for them to be doing here in Australia. I mean only a couple of years ago one of the leading news stories was a custody battle over children in Queensland where the Italian father had won custody of the children, and the family – the grandparents and the mother – were fighting the order of the court that the children be taken back to Italy. What if that had happened in that case? Just say the order had gone the other way and the father and an Italian TV crew was here and the children were grabbed on the streets of the Gold Coast and taken, and the plan was to take them to a boat at Southport, and somehow the TV crew had helped fund the abduction. Can people imagine what would have happened there? So what Channel Nine needs to be asking is what is going on there culturally in their mindset about these sorts of stories to think that it’s okay to do that in Lebanon, but it’s not okay to do it in Australia. What’s their view of another country’s legal system that allows that to happen?

Now there’s still a lot of this story to come out, facts that we will hear about – you just played a part of the father’s version of whether or not people are being paid or whatever. The truth of all of that will eventually come out. But I think what Channel Nine needs to do is actually follow the privacy guidelines of ACMA, the Broadcasting Authority, but follow them to the letter. They are not obligatory, but they need to actually look at them; where it says that children are more vulnerable, and the privacy of children is something that really needs close scrutiny. And in public interest – what they might call public interest doesn’t outweigh the rights of children to be considered. A story like this has ripple effects across a whole range of stakeholders, and they need to actually have a formalised process which goes through considering the potential impact on all of those involved – including in this case, the news crew.

MW: Indeed. Mark Pearson, a professor in journalism at Griffith University. Often ‘journalistic ethics’ is a pair of words that is tossed around fairly liberally. The Code of Ethics that journalists need to adhere to, are they sufficiently aware of it? Or are they far too ignorant of it, either wilfully or otherwise?

MP: Well, journalists do know about the Code of Ethics, and most journalists these days have been through some journalism program, like a degree or whatever and have learned about the Code of Ethics. But the big problem with the Australian journalists’ Code of Ethics, and most others, is that there is a whopping ‘get-out’ clause. What it says is that all of these are things that should be strived for, but if the public interest, or if the story is of such public concern then that excuses journalists, outweighing those ethical considerations. But it does make specific reference to chequebook journalism – now I’m not saying that’s happened in this case, is it chequebook journalism to help fund an operation? Well, that’s something we’ll be able to discuss once more facts come out. But also things like dealing with children and the vulnerable, and thinking of those potential implications.

So I think it’s more than just journalists’ ethics: it’s a basic moral code that most humans think twice before they do something that is related to or can impact badly on children’s lives. And so if anything comes of this, I would hope that people take special care, and newsrooms implement practices that ring extra alarm bells if there are going to be children involved in any story.

MW: What about those who will argue that look, commercial television is, particularly commercial TV Current Affairs, is a wild and woolly old world, boundaries will always be pushed; that’s the nature of capitalism in many regards. This shouldn’t come as any surprise that this sort of thing is happening. What do you say to those types?

MP: Well if there is a commercial or a capitalism argument for breaching ethics I think you can counter that with another equally commercial or capitalist argument: and that is the only thing that journalism has left these days, compared with its internet rivals, compared with the jungle of news breakers out there who might be citizen journalists or people doing it simply for a commercial imperative, the only thing that we have remaining to sell news is credibility and respect in the community. And that comes through having an ethical code that journalists adhere to. I think 60 Minutes has lost a lot of credibility out of this, and I think Channel Nine will be reviewing that because there is a commercial loss involved when you’ve overstepped the mark and you lose respect in the eyes of the community. 60 Minutes used to be a wonderful news brand, and Channel Nine will be asking what’s happened to that in the wake of this episode.

MW: Interesting observations, Mark Pearson, I really appreciate your time. Thank you.

MP: Thanks Matt

MW: Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media at Griffith University’s School of Humanities (Languages, and Social Science).

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RELATED:

Our book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY, 2015)  explored the possibilities of applying mindfulness techniques to journalism practice.

Interested? You can listen to my 10 minute interview on Radio National’s Media Report here.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 9.46.24 am

See also my account of the basic principles of mindful journalism in the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, and the editors have been kind enough to make that article available for free viewing as a feature item on their website here. You might also want to explore some of their other fascinating articles on media ethics here and perhaps subscribe.

———–

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 2016

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Filed under blogging, Buddhism, citizen journalism, Eightfold Path, free expression, media ethics, mental health, social media

Stay Out Of Jail 101: Phone a spy before breaking a national security scoop

By MARK PEARSON

You have information that police and intelligence agencies are about to launch Australia’s biggest counter-terror operation. Or perhaps they already have.

ASIO headquarters, Canberra. Photo: Maps

ASIO headquarters, Canberra. Photo: Maps

The story could be the biggest scoop of your journalistic career.

Your news instinct might be to rush to publication or broadcast without giving government agencies the chance to shut your story down and without risking the news being leaked to your competitors.

But if your story meets the definition of a “special intelligence operation” under the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Act 1979 then you could face up to five years in jail for ‘unauthorised’ disclosure of information, and up to 10 years if the disclosure ‘endangers the health or safety’ of anyone or will ‘prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation’.

Amendments partially exempting ‘outsiders’ (journalists) were proposed in 2016, but grave concerns remained over the impacts on journalists for ‘reckless’ disclosure that might endanger safety and jeopardise an operation and the implications for their sources.

So what might be “reckless” disclosure?

For that, we look to Section 5.4 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which reads:

5.4   Recklessness

(2)  A person is reckless with respect to a result if:

(a)  he or she is aware of a substantial risk that the result will occur; and

(b)  having regard to the circumstances known to him or her, it is unjustifiable to take the risk.

When it comes to reckless disclosure, the Australian Law Reform Commission has stated:

“If the offence was framed to cover reckless disclosure, the prosecution would be required to prove that the accused was aware of a substantial risk that disclosure would occur as the result of the accused’s conduct and, having regard to the circumstances known to him or her, it was unjustifiable to take the risk.”

So, whether you view it under the existing Section 35P, or under the proposed reforms the Turnbull Government has agreed to enact, there is a strong argument that the only way to ensure you will not be charged with reckless disclosure is to first phone ASIO.

And that’s exactly the advice I was given when I phoned the ASIO media section and asked an (obviously) anonymous media liaison officer about the spy agency’s policy in dealing with journalists’ queries about whether the breaking news event they were trying to cover was in fact a “special intelligence operation”.

He said ASIO tried to strike a balance between what was appropriate to report and what was inappropriate.

He explained that soon after s35P had been passed in 2014 there had been a number of inquiries from journalists and that his office was not sure whether they were legitimate concerns about whether operations were SIOs or whether it was just “journalists being smart about the new laws”.

He said ASIO’s normal policy was to decline to comment when a media inquiry related to an individual or an operational matter, and that blanket ban made it hard to confirm or deny whether a particular operation was an SIO.

I later sent these specific questions to the officer at media@asio.gov.au:

  1. What steps should journalists take to ascertain whether their story (e.g., terror arrest, investigation, etc) relates to an SIO (special intelligence operation)?
  2. How do you respond to journalists’ inquiries about SIOs when ASIO’s normal practice is not to comment on matters related to individuals or operations?
  3. How many journalists’ inquiries as to whether an operation is an SIO have you had since the legislation was enacted?
  4. How many such inquiries have you had this year?
  5. What steps do you take to prevent/warn journalists about reporting the details of an SIO?
  6. What steps do you take to prevent/warn journalists about revealing the ID of an ASIO officer?
  7. How many instances of either (journalists giving SIO details or naming an officer) have you dealt with, and how have you handled them?

In a reply email, he referred me to ASIO’s responses to questions posed by the acting Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Roger Gyles QC when he was conducting his inquiry into the legislation, publicly released in February 2016.

That submission confirmed the approach the media officer had outlined, stating:

“Media inquiries received by ASIO are managed in accordance with standard operating procedures. To perform its statutory functions, ASIO must employ a conservative approach to media engagement with respect to operational matters. ASIO does not confirm details relating to individuals, investigations or operations as a matter of course. This includes inquiries in relation to special intelligence operations or other operationally sensitive information.

If journalists contact ASIO Media regarding an operational matter they intend to report on, ASIO advises the relevant line-area within the Organisation before responding to the journalist. When ASIO has concerns about the sensitivities around the subject being reported on, ASIO does not provide a public comment, but may decide to speak with the journalist on a confidential basis to provide context on that sensitivity. In this instance, the journalist may be contacted by the Director-General or a Deputy Director-General to explain how Australia’s national security would be prejudiced if the subject was reported on publicly.

All media inquiries, and responses, are logged and retained for accountability and future reference.”

It continued:

“In practice, if a journalist approached ASIO for comment on information they believed to be operationally sensitive, and which ASIO knew to be related to a special intelligence operation, ASIO would consider speaking with the journalist on a confidential basis to explain the sensitivities of the information. A number of considerations would go to determining whether to inform the journalist of the existence of a special intelligence operation, including whether a person might be harmed should the existence of a special intelligence operation be revealed. If, after receiving a confidential briefing by ASIO, the journalist still intended to publish the information, ASIO would advise the journalist that to do so may breach 35P. It would then be for the journalist to decide whether or not to proceed with publishing the information.”

So there you have it, the national spy agency recommends the Ghostbusters approach to journalists wanting to avoid a decade in jail for reckless disclosure of a special intelligence agency: “Who you gonna call? ASIO.”

And we might never know how many journalists have already been tapped on the shoulder and ‘advised’ not to publish.

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

© Mark Pearson 2016

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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Identification error leads to a useful case for teaching the basic elements of defamation

**See UPDATE after appeal**

By MARK PEARSON

[research assistance from Virginia Leighton-Jackson]

The morphed identification of an innocent octogenarian tailor and his alleged gun-running son produces a useful case study for teachers and trainers trying to explain the basic elements of defamation.

The NSW District Court case of Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Limited & Ors [2015] NSWDC 232 centred upon an article in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph (22-8-13, p. 9) with the heading “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner”. [The article in question is attached to the judgment as a pdf file.]

The article portrayed an 86-year-old suburban tailor with a distinctive name as a gun-runner who had been arrested, charged and appeared in court facing charges related to him holding a huge cache of weapons and ammunition at his home.

Police had indeed raided his premises and had found weapons and ammunition in the house’s garage, occupied by the tailor’s 43-year-old son, who shared his father’s name and was the actual individual who had appeared in court facing those charges.

The case is a fascinating one for student discussion because several basic concepts in defamation were contested and resolved, including:

  • imputations – how they are worded and presented
  • the misidentification’s impact on the plaintiff’s relationships, business and emotional state
  • the question of identification and case law establishing the extent of defamation of a second person with the same name and address as the first
  • whether a claim for defamation will hold when some other identifying factors do not match one of the named individuals. [In this case, while the headline identified the plaintiff as a tailor, the article featured a small photograph of his 43 year old son and mentioned the younger man’s age].
  • whether the defences of a fair report of proceedings of public concern could apply when there were serious inaccuracies in the article
  • whether an offer of amends had been reasonable and whether it had been accepted by the plaintiff.

On the question of identification, Judge Leonard Levy ruled:

Para 37   …where a plaintiff has actually been named in a defamatory publication it is not necessary for the plaintiff to show that those to whom the material was published knew the plaintiff: Mirror Newspapers Ltd v World Hosts Pty Ltd (1978 – 1979) 141 CLR 632, at 639.

38   Even so, the plaintiff must establish that the defamatory matter should be understood to be referring to him: Consolidated Trust Co Ltd v Browne (1948) 49 SR (NSW) 86, at 91. The determination of that question of identification is not to be decided by a consideration of what the publisher intended: Hutton v Jones [1910] AC 20.

39   In cases where a defamatory publication names one person but another person of the same name has been defamed, this can give rise to more than one claim: Lee v Wilson and Mackinnon (1934) 51 CLR 276, as cited in Australian Defamation Law and Practice, Volume 1, TK Tobin QC, MG Sexton SC, eds, 2003, at [6050].

40   In determining the question of identification, the question is, would a sensible reader reasonably identify the plaintiff as the person defamed: Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd [1971] 1 WLR 1239. …

49   In my view, the combined context … serves to adequately identify the plaintiff….

52   …the article strings together the plaintiff’s name, his profession, the fact that he lives in his home in the Sutherland Shire, and has a business altering the clothes of locals all point strongly to the article mentioning the plaintiff by his name and is sufficient of his personal situation to indicate it was him who was the subject of the article.

53   Those details all follow the sensational headline “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner” thereby making a connection between the plaintiff and the described illegal activity concerning the cache of weapons and ammunition found at the premises.

54   The fact that an unclear undated photograph of Tony Zoef appears in the article (at par 38) is immaterial. The fact the article identifies the age of the person the subject of the article as being a 43 year old does introduce an element of possible confusion (par 30) along with the indistinct photograph (at par 38), but inaccuracy of some details appearing in a newspaper article is not an unknown phenomenon.

55   The salient feature is that the plaintiff was named in the article with sufficient of his personal details to suggest he was thereby identified, although the latter details are not essential to that finding.

56   As the article in question named the plaintiff, in my view thereby identifying him, this forms the basis of his right to bring the proceedings without more being shown by him. The fact that there were two persons at the premises named Tony Zoef is immaterial. Both persons of that name could bring proceedings for defamation in their own names: Lee v Wilson and Mackinnon (1934) 51 CLR 276.

59   …I am nevertheless satisfied that the material complained of should be understood as referring to the plaintiff even though the publisher may not have intended that to be so: Consolidated Trust Co Ltd v Browne (1948) 49 SR (NSW) 86, at 91.

60   I consider that … an ordinary sensible reader would identify the plaintiff as the person the subject of the material complained of because of the specific of his name, profession, and locality as already explained. Such a reader… would not read such a sensational article as the one in question with critical and analytical care.

61   The article would be approached by such a reader with the permissible amount of loose thinking, and that reader would be reasonably entitled to draw the conclusion that the article was referring to the plaintiff, even though there were some elements of confusion such as a less than distinct photograph and a different age mentioned to that of the plaintiff. An ordinary reasonable reader would not necessarily know the plaintiff’s age or his level of interest in matters to do with space. The headline of “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner” would catch the attention of such a reader and permit the general impression of the story being a reference to the plaintiff: Mirror Newspapers Limited v World Hosts Proprietary Limited [1978 – 1979] 141 CLR 632, at p 646; Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd [1971] 1 WLR 1239.

The judge also considered the important question of the impact of headlines:

44   In cases involving headlines, it must be borne in mind that the ordinary reasonable reader will draw conclusions from general impressions when reading the matter complained of. Such general impressions are necessarily formed by the technique of using prominent headlines to communicate the principal message of the publication, and it must be recognised that in that process, such material may diminish the reputations of those affected: Chakravarti v Advertiser Newspapers Limited (1998) 193 CLR 519, at p 575.

A large portion of the judgment centred upon whether a defence of ‘offer of amends’ should be upheld under s 18(1)(c) of the Defamation Act. The judge held that, despite the serious errors in the reporting of the story and a dispute over whether the offer of amends was reasonable and had been withdrawn, the newspaper was entitled to the offer of amends defence.

———–

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 2016

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Filed under blogging, courts, defamation, free expression, journalism education, media ethics, Media freedom, media law, Press freedom, sub judice, suppression, Uncategorized

‘Right Speech’ and media law – mindful journalism as an analytical tool

By MARK PEARSON

Our book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY, 2015)  explored the possibilities of applying mindfulness techniques to journalism practice.

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 3.08.59 pm

I  recently wrote an article on the “Right Speech” aspect of mindful journalism for the International Communication Gazette titled ‘Enlightening communication analysis in Asia-Pacific: Media studies, ethics and law using a Buddhist perspective’. Its abstract and link to the full article is available here.

The article backgrounds important critiques of the Western approach to communication  studies, and considers how globalized communication and media studies has become, before exemplifying how a secular Buddhist perspective might offer 2,500 year-old analytical tools that can assist with media analysis, law and ethics.

The article proposes the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and their associated Noble Eightfold Path (magga) can be fruitful tools for informing communication theory and analysis, and media law and ethics.

In media analysis, it suggests the Buddha’s teachings on Right Speech (samma vaca) offer key understandings to assist with the deconstruction of media texts. In media law and ethics, it extends the application of Right Speech principles to comparing defences to libel (defamation) as they have developed in four Western jurisdictions.

Here is a brief extract showing the potential for exploring media law using a Buddhist/mindful journalism framework:

The ultimate contest over media talk and Right Speech happens in the courts when media texts face charges for their criminality or are the subject of civil suits over their alleged infringement on citizens’ rights like copyright, confidentiality and defamation. There is also value in applying a mindful, Buddhist approach to the study of communication and media law. We can hardly reject the teachings of the founder of one of the world’s greatest religions as inappropriate in a communication law context on exclusively secular grounds because that would imply our so-called secular approaches to communication and media theory and ethics have no religious roots. No Western academic could deny deep-seated Abrahamic influences upon the cultural origins of media law and its scholarship. A whole body of literature on the philosophy of science and religion attests to it. In media law and ethics, libertarian approaches to press freedom espoused by the likes of Milton, Mill and Jefferson arose in an era when political, cultural and religious notions of rights were intertwined. For example, the most famous treatise against licensing of the press – Milton’s Areopagitica – was prefaced with an explanation that Moses, David and Paul the Apostle were all learned because they were able to read widely. Milton wrote:

…as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye (Milton, 1644).

The U.S. Supreme Court cited Areopagitica in the landmark defamation case of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 US 254, when explaining why it would be counter-productive to move the burden of proving truth to the defendant (NY Times v. Sullivan, Footnote 19). Thus, by only two degrees of separation, we find Judeo-Christian teachings informing a key decision on news media talk in one of the most purportedly secular of institutions – the U.S. Supreme Court. Related to this, as Rolph (2008: 38-43) notes, defamation as the tort used to contest objectionable speech, first arose in England in 1222 in the ecclesiastical (church) courts where it remained a spiritual offence for about four centuries. Damage to a reputation was seen to be an offence to the target’s soul – a right that only God should possess – to be judged only by God’s earthly adjudicators, the clergy. There was even recourse for appeals from English ecclesiastical court judgments to the Pope (Rolph, 2008: 45). From the 16th century, defamation actions were increasingly brought in the common law courts, with the courts developing a list of allegations with which they would deal, without needing proof of actual damage being caused by the defamation (Morison & Sappideen 1989: 173). Even today the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists ‘detraction’ (essentially gossip – or disclosing ‘another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them’) as a sin – or an ‘offense against truth’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 2477). Thus, defamation action – the legal action available to those subjected to damaging media talk – has a traceable Christian genealogy.

In this globalised, multi-cultural and multi-jurisdictional Web 2.0 era there should be no reason why the Judeo-Christian lens should have a monopoly on our examination of communication law. A mindful reading of defamation law benefits from a consideration of both Right Speech principles and concepts of necessary truth-telling. While it is far-fetched to expect judges and legislators in the West would turn to Buddhism for the reform of defamation law, an effort to abide by truth-telling and Right Speech principles could operate effectively when professional communicators are attempting to avoid libel litigation when pursuing their stories. Further, they present excellent tools for an alternative analysis.

Analysis of the development of defamation defences in Canada, the UK, Australia and the U.S. benefit from a Buddhist reading. In Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61, [2009] 3 S.C.R. 640, the Supreme Court of Canada developed a ‘responsible communication’ defence to defamation for matters which might not have been able to be proven absolutely as true, but were still diligently reported and were clearly in the public interest to be aired within the spirit of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protection of free expression. Chief Justice McLachlin summed up the relevant factors of the ‘responsible communication’ defence on a demonstrable matter of public interest in these terms:

  • seriousness of the allegation
  • public importance of the matter
  • urgency of the matter
  • status and reliability of the source
  • whether the plaintiff’s side of the story was sought and accurately reported
  • whether the inclusion of the defamatory material was justifiable
  • whether a defamatory statement’s public interest lay in the fact that it had been made rather than whether it was truthful
  • other relevant circumstances

The court drew upon similar criteria to those developed earlier in the UK case of Reynolds v. Times Newspapers Ltd [2001] 2 AC 127 as part of the common law qualified privilege defence and elements of the statutory qualified privilege defence in Australia’s uniform Defamation Acts 2005.

The most significant First Amendment case in recent decades was New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 US 254 where it was ruled that public of­ficials had to meet tough new tests before they could succeed in a defamation action even if the allegations in the article were proven false. It established that plaintiffs who were ‘public officials’ had to prove a media defendant had acted with ‘actual malice’ if they were to win a defamation action, even if the defamatory allegation was untrue. The test has since been expanded to apply to any ‘public figure’— essentially anyone who is well known to the public, has taken on some public role or who has participated voluntarily in some controversy. While the prin­ciple has some difficulties in definition and application, it has meant the media in the United States have been free to publish criticism of virtually anyone in the public domain, even if the criticism proves to be unfounded, just so long as they have not acted maliciously or in ‘reckless disregard’ of the truth.

It is possible to implement a Buddhist approach using the Right Speech teachings from the Noble Eightfold Path to conduct an analysis in this area of communication law. The author proposes to do this more thoroughly in future work. However, for the purposes of this argument we might return to the Abhaya Sutta … and contrast these defences as they have been developed in these jurisdictions (Thanissaro, 1997). Crucial to the Canadian ‘responsible communication’ defence and its qualified privilege cousins in the UK and Australia is the extent to which reporters and publishers honestly believe in the truth of the defamatory material published, even though they might not have the firm evidence to prove this in court. They would pass the Buddhist (mindful journalism) test if they had an honest belief the material was “factual, true, beneficial” while perhaps being “unendearing and disagreeable to others”, as long as they had chosen the “proper time” for reporting it (Thanissaro, 1997). However, the U.S. defences driven by the First Amendment takes this liberty a step too far under this schema, because it allows unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable material to be published about public figures as long as it has not been done with malice. It also allows for untruthful gossip-mongering, as identified earlier in the Saleyyaka Sutta (Nanamoli, 1994) as ethically problematic. Such analysis shows promise in the field of media law analysis, reform and policy development because it provides a working ethical framework to apply to legislation and the fact scenarios of particular cases.

I’ve also written a shorter account of the basic principles of mindful journalism in the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, and the editors have been kind enough to make that article available for free viewing as a feature item on their website here. You might also want to explore some of their other fascinating articles on media ethics here and perhaps subscribe.

———–

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 2016

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Filed under blogging, Buddhism, citizen journalism, Eightfold Path, free expression, media ethics, mental health, social media

The main national security laws affecting journalists and sources

By MARK PEARSON

[with research assistance from Virginia Leighton-Jackson]

Among more than 50 national security laws and amendments passed in Australia since 9/11, these four stand out as presenting the greatest threat to journalists …

ASIOActScreenshot

  1. ASIO Act 1979

Section 25A focuses on ASIO powers and access to computer networks, with one warrant now covering an entire computer network using third party computers to access target systems.

Section 34 gives ASIO powers to seek ‘questioning’ warrants and ‘questioning and detention’ warrants (detention for up to seven days) with five years’ jail possible for any revelation of the existence of the warrant itself or of any operation related to the warrant for up to two years after the warrant has expired. There are no public interest or media exemptions to the requirement, although disclosures of operational information by anyone other than the subject of a warrant or their lawyer requires the discloser to have shown ‘recklessness’ (s. 34ZS (3)).

Section 35P provides for up to five years in jail for ‘unauthorised’ disclosure of information related to a ‘special intelligence operation’ – and up to 10 years if the disclosure ‘endangers the health or safety’ of anyone or will ‘prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation’. Amendments partially exempting ‘outsiders’ (journalists) were proposed in 2016, but grave concerns remained over the impacts on journalists for ‘reckless’ disclosure that might endanger safety and jeopardise an operation and the implications for their sources.

Section 92 provides for 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone who identifies an ASIO officer or affiliate (or anyone connected with them) other than any who have been identified in Parliament (such as the director-general). Former ASIO employees and affiliates can be identified if they have consented in writing or have generally made that fact be known.

  1. Crimes Act 1914 (Cth)

Section 3ZQT makes it an offence to disclose the fact that someone has been given notice by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to produce documents related to a serious terrorism offence. Journalists could face up to two years in prison for doing so.

  1. Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979

After amendments in 2015, the Act requires telecommunications providers to retain customers’ phone and computer metadata for two years so they can be accessed by criminal law enforcement agencies (State and Commonwealth) on the issue of a warrant. Information required to be stored includes: subscriber/ account information, the source and destination of a communication, the date, time and duration of a communication or connection to a service. A ‘journalist information warrant’ scheme was designed to prohibit the disclosure of journalists’ confidential sources without special precautions. These require approval of the Minister, who may act on the advice of a ‘public interest advocate’, though the processes are secret and disclosure of the details of any warrant for telecommunications data can incur imprisonment for two years.

  1. National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004 (Cth) (‘NSI’)

National security has long been cited as one of the exceptions to the principle of open justice, but new laws give judges and magistrates more reason to close a court in a terrorism trial. The NSI Act allows for evidence to be suppressed in court hearings if it contains disclosures prejudicial to national security. Part 3 of the Act allows prosecutors and courts to use national security information in criminal proceedings while preventing the broader disclosure of such information, sometimes even to the defendant. Section 29 gives courts the power to decide whether to close the court for such matters.

Other laws to consider when covering a national security story:

Discrimination and vilification laws

Laws apply at state, territory and Commonwealth levels prohibiting racial and religious discrimination and the vilification of people because of their race, religion, or other factors. They vary in their scope and application, with debate over whether the law against offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin in Section 18C the Racial Discrimination Act (Clth) would apply to discriminatory media coverage of Muslims. All media codes of practice and ethical codes counsel against discriminatory or vilifying coverage. Social media comment moderation presents special challenges.

Defamation

If you are about to publish something damaging to someone’s reputation, ensure you work carefully within one of the main defences – truth (evidence to prove both the facts and their defamatory meaning), honest opinion / fair comment (based on true provable facts on a matter of legitimate public interest), or fair report (a fair and accurate report of a court case, parliament or another protected public occasion or document).

Contempt of court

The sub judice period (limiting prejudicial coverage about a suspect) starts from the moment someone has been arrested or charged. From that instant you should take legal advice before publishing anything other than what has been stated in open court, with special care to avoid any material giving an assumption of guilt (or even innocence), visual identification of the accused if their identification might be at issue, witness accounts, character background, confessions or prior charges or convictions. You can also face contempt charges over refusing to reveal a source or provide your data or notes when ordered to do so, thus techniques for source protection are paramount.

Suppression orders

Courts have special powers to issue suppression orders in national security cases. These might prohibit identification of certain people, restrict coverage of certain parts of a hearing, or even ban coverage of the total proceedings. Reporters and bloggers have been fined and jailed for breaching such suppression orders.

Sources:

Australian Human Rights Commission 2008, A Human Rights Guide to Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Laws, AHRC, Sydney, <www.humanrights.gov.au/human-rights-guide-australias-counter-terrorism-laws>.

Evershed, N., Safi, M., 19.10.2015, “All of Australia’s National Security Changes since 9/11 in a Timeline”, The Guardian Australia, available: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2015/oct/19/all-of-australias-national-security-changes-since-911-in-a-timeline

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

© Mark Pearson 2016

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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Journalist Peter Greste explains why it is important to cover Islam ethically

By MARK PEARSON

Australian journalist Peter Greste – released last year after 400 days in an Egyptian jail – has outlined why it is so important for journalists to be fair and accurate in their coverage of Islam and Muslim communities.

I interviewed Greste for our Reporting Islam project on the eve of him receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University for his service to journalism and delivering the annual Griffith Lecture at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane last December.

Greste started reporting on the Islamic world in 1995 as Kabul correspondent for the BBC.

“I think it is absolutely vital that journalists anywhere understand as much as they can about Muslims and the Islamic world largely because when we talk about that world we speak about it as if it is in the singular when in fact it isn’t,” Greste said.

“It’s an incredibly complex, multifaceted group of individuals, of sects, of smaller schools of thought.

“The greatest danger is that we conflate everything into one.

“We’ve got to be very careful to understand the subtleties and nuances of the Islamic world and make sure we avoid that same mistake.”

The interview will appear as part of a set of research-based resources colleague Associate Professor Jacqui Ewart and I are developing with our team as part of our Commonwealth-funded Reporting Islam project.

The project is national in its ambit, funded under a competitive grants scheme, facilitated by the Attorney General’s Department and managed by the Queensland Police Service who have contracted us to undertake the work as independent researchers.
Stage 1 of the project was conducted over the 2014-2015 financial year involving a review of the literature on news media coverage of Islam and Muslim people, case studies of media reportage across media types at national and community levels, interviews with experts in the field, distillation of international studies to develop a schema for assessing reportage against world best practice in the area, and a compilation of a report on these findings with recommendations for the development of a suite of resources and training programs.

We are now in Stage 2 of the project (2015-2016) which requires the development and trial of a suite of research-based training and education resources for Australian media practitioners and students to encourage more mindful reporting of Muslims and the Islamic faith.

Credits:

Camera: Ashil Ranpara, Griffith University School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science

Production: Henry Cook, Griffith Learning Futures

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality; and on journlaw.com from November 13, 2014 titled: International studies point to best practice for reporting Islam and stories involving Muslims.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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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Freed journalist Peter Greste gets honorary doctorate then calls for free speech in the age of terror

By MARK PEARSON

The Australian journalist jailed for 400 days in Egypt called for greater freedom for the media during the war on terror after being awarded an honorary doctorate by Griffith University tonight (December 4).

Journalist Peter Greste receives his honorary doctorate at Griffith University

Journalist Peter Greste receives his honorary doctorate at Griffith University

Greste received an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University for his service to journalism before delivering the annual Griffith Lecture at the Queensland Conservatorium in South Bank Brisbane.

His arrest with Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, by Egyptian authorities on false terrorism charges, triggered international demands for their release from 2013 to 2015.

“If I’d known it was this easy to get a doctorate I would have been arrested years ago,” he joked. “It’s a great honour to receive this award. I take it as a mark of recognition, not just for what we went through but also for what it represents…for those 400 days of prison.’

“We fought hard for our own freedom, but I think it’s important that people also see the bigger picture of due process and freedom of speech.

“I’m being recognised more for the things we came to represent, than anything that I’ve done.”

He argued large parts of the media had given up on their public responsibility to keep the public informed with fair and accurate reporting. The war on terror was a battle of ideas and journalists were active participants.

The media should be properly be part of a functioning democracy in its role as the fourth estate, checking the functioning on the other arms of government.

“In the war of terror we seem to be losing sight of that key idea,” he said. “Governments the world over are using that ‘t’ word to clamp down on those freedoms.”

He gave recent examples from other countries of journalists being arrested on trumped-up terror charges just as he and his two colleagues had been in Egypt.

Australians should not feel smug because of legislation introduced in recent years targeting those disclosing special intelligence operations, the Foreign Fighters Bill and metadata retention laws.

These restricted the reporting on important events, the main story of the era about international terrorism, and seriously damaged the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.

“It makes confidential whistleblowing almost impossible without risking a prison term,” he said.

“Each has an effect on journalists being able to do the job the public demands of us.”

However, he criticised news media organisations and journalists for not being proactive enough in fighting the introduction of such laws.

“We the media have become increasingly slack in challenging and questioning governments,” he said.

He said journalists should not accept the rhetoric of governments engaged in the war on terror. Rather, questioning that misuse of language would be “one of the most patriotic things to do”.

“Panicked and hyped up language” played into the hands of Islamic State, he said.

“We the media have a responsibility to uphold our end of the bargain as well.”

He said the #FreeAJStaff hashtag calling for the release of him and his colleagues attracted billions of supporters and indicated a high level of public belief that journalism was fundamental to democracy.

During his 400-day detention in an Egyptian prison he studied international relations with Griffith University.

Greste turned 50 this week. He grew up in Brisbane and has reported on political events all over the world. As a correspondent, between 1991 and 1995, he reported from many locations including London, Bosnia and South Africa where he worked with Reuters, CNN, WTN and the BBC.

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, he returned to Afghanistan to cover the war there. In 2011, he received a prestigious Peabody Award for his BBC documentary Somalia: Land of Anarchy. In December 2013, his employer Al Jazeera sent him from his base in Nairobi to Cairo to cover the bureau for three weeks. It was then he was arrested. 

In June 2014, after more than six months in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison, a court found Greste and his colleagues guilty and sentenced them to seven years imprisonment.

Peter Greste with his Griffith lecturers Dr Dan Halvorson and Professor Andrew O'Neill.

Peter Greste with his Griffith lecturers Dr Dan Halvorson and Professor Andrew O’Neill. Photo: Michael Cranfield

He said presenting the Griffith Lecture on December 4 was a way of validating what he and his colleagues went through retrospectively. “It’s a way of applying meaning to what we went through. Those 400 days weren’t wasted.

“I learned a lot about myself in prison but that time has also given me the credibility to talk about those issues around press freedom. I feel a responsibility to talk about these issues, partly because so many of my friends, so many journalists, fought so hard for me, that’s why people backed us.”

While his colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were pardoned by the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in September, Mr Greste still carries a criminal conviction and an outstanding prison sentence which his legal team is fighting.

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

© Mark Pearson 2015

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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