Tag Archives: Fourth Estate

Greste release is welcome, as would be a free media in Australia #FreeAJStaff

By MARK PEARSON

My contribution to the Griffith Red Couch blog, first published here. Follow the Red Couch Blog for commentary from Griffith University academics.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott celebrated the release of journalist Peter Greste after 400 days in an Egyptian prison with these words at the National Press Club in Canberra on February 2:

 “…sometimes as Australians we do take our most precious freedoms for granted. And as a former journalist myself it would be remiss of me at such a gathering of journalists not to express my personal delight and our nation’s relief at the overnight release of Peter Greste and to reiterate our support as a government and as a people for a free media and a free press.”

Peter_Greste_2012_WikiCommons

Australian journalist Peter Greste – jailed for a year in Egypt. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

GlobalFreeAJSTAFFactionThe Prime Minister was quite correct in stating Australians often take free expression for granted, but they might take the lead from both his government and the former Labor government in doing so. The Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Australia 28th of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index last year.

That is relatively high in the league table, and Australia rarely jails its journalists and has never murdered them. Such acts are more common in nations much lower down the press freedom ladder.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Peter Greste and his al Jazeera colleagues were among 221 imprisoned globally in 2014 and already this year 15 journalists have lost their lives in the course of their work.

However, Mr Abbott’s expressed “support as a government and as a people for a free media and a free press” rings somewhat hollow in the context of recent moves by Australian governments to shackle that freedom.

It is ironic that in the same week he made that statement the Prime Minister was calling for bipartisan support for his data retention laws which would force telecommunications companies to retain – and make available to government agencies – metadata including the time and location of phone calls, texts, emails, internet browsing, social media discussions and webcam communications.

That step alone – taken in the name of better national security – stands to damage irreparably the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.

This is just one of several indicators that Australia has recently embarked upon a shift towards a “state of secrecy”.

It comes against the backdrop that, unlike the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and even Papua New Guinea, Australia has no national Bill of Rights or written constitutional or legislative protection of free expression or a free media.

Australia has only an “implied freedom” that our High Court justices have sadly read down over many decisions.

In its first year in office, the Abbott Government:

This is not simply an Abbott Liberal-National conservative government phenomenon. Governments have a natural inclination to control public debate. If they have the resources, mechanisms and opportunities available to them they will do so.

Australia’s previous Labor government wanted a new mechanism of media accountability because they were copping so much unfair criticism from the Murdoch press. Their knee-jerk reaction was to try to install a regulatory mechanism that any government of whatever political persuasion could use in the future.

All these measures undermine the role of Australia as a beacon of free expression in the Asia-Pacific region.

Whistleblowers are being snared by the various surveillance laws and the technologies available to detect them. They are being found and they are going to court. The proposed data retention laws will increase that likelihood.

In the area of spin, the media finds it very hard to gain access to and report upon asylum seekers and detainees – stories that are really an international human rights issue of legitimate public interest.

Australia has at least purported to be some sort of exemplar to the region of media freedom, transparency and good governance. It has spent millions on aid projects designed to enhance such values internationally. But sadly Australia is moving towards a “state of secrecy” with no constitutional brake on censorship.

A perfect storm of factors has contributed to this including the rise of spin (we now have more PR practitioners than journalists), the demise of traditional media and its budgets to defend and lobby for media freedom, and the political capital available to parties of all political persuasions in getting tough on terrorism and immigration.

We can quite rightly celebrate free expression with the release of Peter Greste after more than a year of imprisonment for simply doing his job as a journalist.

But my great fear is that fragile freedom is seriously under threat in the very country he calls home.

© 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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Is Australia an emerging Secret State?

By MARK PEARSON

My speech to the Pacific Journalism Review 20th Anniversary conference in Auckland, on November 27, 2014 was titled: ‘Suppression, sentences, surveillance, security and cynical spin: Is Australia an emerging Secret State?’

PJR Review Conf Notice 2014 550wideYou can read an abridged version of that speech in The Conversation here.

You can also hear the full audio of my presentation here.

In it I track the first year in office the Abbott Government, where it has:

  • blocked the media from information on the important human rights issue of the fate of asylum seekers
  • initiated major budget cuts on the publicly funded ABC
  • used anti-terror laws to win a ‘super injunction’ on court proceedings that might damage its international relations
  • ramped up surveillance powers of national security agencies and banning reporting of security operations
  • proposed increased jail terms for leaks about security matters
  • moved to stop not-for-profits advocating against government policy in their service agreements
  • abolished the Office of the Information Commissioner for abolition, promising tardy FOI appeals
  • proposed the taxing of telcos to pay for its new surveillance measures, potentially a modern version of licensing the press.

Australia has at least purported to be an exemplar of media freedom, transparency and good governance throughout the region, but continues to censor those who teach and counsel on those initiatives throughout the region. Here is the standard gag clause from the most current ($3 million Transparency International) contract:

Gagclause

My conclusion is that Australia might not be a secret state like North Korea but it is certainly moving towards a “state of secrecy” and it is doing so with no constitutional brake in our country on censorship.

It is now sending a mixed message to the region on free expression, transparency and good governance.

You can read an abridged version of that speech in The Conversation here.

You can also hear the full audio of my presentation here.

© Mark Pearson 2014

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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See @ConversationEDU for @journlaw’s five reasons the Australian #natsec laws damage media freedom

By MARK PEARSON

The Abbott government’s latest tranches of national security and counter-terrorism laws represent the greatest attack on the Fourth Estate function of journalism in the modern era. They are worse than the Gillard government’s failed attempts to regulate the press.

Unlike most other Western democracies, Australia has no constitutional instrument protecting free expression as a human right. Few politicians can resist the temptation to control the flow of information if the law permits.

Here are five reasons that this latest move is damaging the democratic cornerstone of press freedom:

  1. It is legislative over-reach
  2. It gags reportage of a key public issue
  3. It compromises the separation of powers
  4. It spells the end for the confidential source
  5. Exemptions effectively license old media over new media.

See The Conversation today for the full article.

[Thanks to media freedom interns Jasmine Lincoln and Satoshi Horiuchi for their research assistance.]

© Mark Pearson 2014

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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Filed under national security, terrorism, Uncategorized