By MARK PEARSON
[Research assistance from media freedom intern Jasmine Lincoln]
Memo to: Benjamin Ismail, Bureau Asie-Pacifique, Reporters sans frontiers (RSF – Reporters Without Borders), Paris.
From: Mark Pearson, RSF correspondent, Australia
I regret to advise that several events and policy proposals have impacted negatively on the state of media freedom in Australia.
They are highly likely to threaten Australia’s ranking on your forthcoming RSF World Press Freedom Index.
A raft of new laws and policies proposed by the conservative Abbott Government has placed its stamp on media law and free and open public commentary.
The initiatives follow in the steps of the prior Labor Government that had proposed a new media regulatory regime with potentially crippling obligations under the Privacy Act.
In the course of its first year in office the Abbott Government has:
– imposed a media blackout on vital 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 (see your earlier RSF release on this, which I cannot legally reproduce here for fear of a contempt charge);
– moved to stop not-for-profits advocating against government policy in their service agreements, meaning they lose funding if they criticise the government;
– slated 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;
– proposed ramped up surveillance powers of national security agencies and banning reporting of security operations (See Prime Minister’s August 5 release here);
– proposed increased jail terms for leaks about security matters (you issued a release on July 22 the impact for whistleblowers);
– mooted a new gag on ‘incitement to terrorism’;
– proposed new laws reversing the onus of proof about the purpose of their journey for anyone, including journalists, travelling to Syria or Iraq.
Major media groups have expressed their alarm at the national security proposals in a joint submission stating that the new surveillance powers and measures against whistleblowers would represent an affront to a free press.
Over the same period the judiciary has presided over the jailing of a journalist for breaching a suppression order, the conviction of a blogger for another breach, and several instances of journalists facing contempt charges over refusal to reveal their sources. There have also been numerous suppression orders issued, including this one over a Victorian gangland trial.
Other disturbing signs have been actions by police and departmental chiefs to intimidate journalists and media outlets.
- The Australian Federal Police raided the Seven Network headquarters in Sydney in February, purportedly in search of evidence of chequebook journalism, triggering an official apology this week.
- Defence Chief General David Hurley wrote to newly elected Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie in March, warning her not to use the media to criticise the military.
- Freelance journalist Asher Wolf received a threatening letter from the secretary for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) Martin Bowles following her co-written article for the Guardian Australia on February 19, 2014 titled ‘Immigration Department data lapse reveals asylum seekers’ personal details.’ The public service mandarin’s letter implied Wolf had obtained the material on which the article was based by ‘dishonest or unfair means’ and demanded Wolf agree not to publish the contents and ‘return all hard and soft copies of the information’ including any her storage devices. See the letter here: WolfDIBP to The Guardian – A Wolf. The Sydney Morning Herald later reported that the DIBP was hiring private contractors to trawl social media and order pro-asylum seeker activists to remove their protesting posts.
I am sure you will agree that these developments are not what we would expect to be unfolding in a Western democracy like Australia where media freedom has previously been at a level respected by the international community.
Mark Pearson (@journlaw)
Sources for further detail on the national security reforms:
(6 August, 2014). Inquiry into the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 Submission. Retrieved from: file:///C:/Users/jasmine/Downloads/17.%20Joint%20media%20organisations%20(1).pdf.
Criminal Code Act 1995 (Qld) s. 5.4 (Austl.).
Grubb, B. (19 August, 2014). Anti-leak spy laws will only target ‘reckless’ journalists: Attorney-General’s office. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/antileak-spy-laws-will-only-target-reckless-journalists-attorneygenerals-office-20140818-1059c7.html.
Grubb, B. (30 July, 2014). Edward Snowden’s lawyer blasts Australian law that would jail journalists reporting on spy leaks. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/consumer-security/edward-snowdens-lawyer-blasts-australian-law-that-would-jail-journalists-reporting-on-spy-leaks-20140730-zyn95.html.
Hopewell, L. (17 July, 2014). New Aussie Security Laws Would Jail Journalists for Reporting on Snowden Style-Leaks. Retrieved from: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/07/new-aussie-security-laws-would-jail-journalists-for-reporting-on-snowden-style-leaks/.
Murphy, K. (17 August, 2014). David Leyonhjelm believes security changes restrict ordinary Australians. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/17/david-leyonhjelm-security-changes-restrict-australians.
Parliament of Australia (15 August, 2014). Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, 15/08/2014, National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014. Retrieved from: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;adv=yes;db=COMMITTEES;id=committees%2Fcommjnt%2F2066f963-ee87-4000-9816-ebc418b47eb4%2F0002;orderBy=priority,doc_date-rev;query=Dataset%3AcomJoint;rec=0;resCount=Default.
The Greens (1 August, 2014). Brandis presumption of terror guilt could trap journalists, aid workers. Retrieved from: http://greens.org.au/node/5617.
© 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.