Tag Archives: shield laws

Journalists, whistleblowers and the law – the end of the era of the confidential Watergate-style source? My #AusCERT2015 address

By MARK PEARSON

My speech to the AusCERT2015 conference on the Gold Coast, Queensland, on Friday June 5.

Abstract

The practicalities of protecting confidential sources are a huge challenge for journalists in the modern era. New shield laws excusing journalists revealing the identity of a whistleblower in court seem pointless if litigants or government agencies have already been able to detect them using the surveillance regime that is ubiquitous in modern society. It prompts the serious questions: Could the Watergate investigation by the Washington Post three decades ago happen in the modern era? How long would Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s White House source ‘Deep Throat’ remain anonymous today? This presentation considers the toll of the era of geo-locational tracking, phone and social media e-records, CCTV in private and public spaces, email logs, surveillance technologies and drones on journalists and their sources. It reviews the key laws in the field of confidentiality, privacy and national security to assess the level of whistleblower and journalist protection they really offer.

Audio available here:

© 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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Forthcoming Pacific Journalism Review covers political journalism in the region

By MARK PEARSON

The May special edition of Pacific Journalism Review will include revised and refereed papers from the PJR2014 conference held in Auckland last November.

I was honoured to collaborate with Associate Professor Joseph Fernandez (@DrJM_Fernandez) from Curtin University on two of the articles in this forthcoming edition –  one on censorship in Australia and the reflection of this in world press freedom indices; and the other on recent developments in shield laws in Australia and on journalists’ attitudes to them and their confidential sources.

Interested? Here are the abstracts and citation details for both articles. Order your PJR copy now.


Pearson, M., and Fernandez, J. M. (2015). Censorship in Australia: Intrusions into media freedom flying beneath the international free expression radar. Pacific Journalism Review, 21(1): 40-60.

Australia has ranked among the top 30 nations in recent world press freedom surveys published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Freedom House and is broadly regarded as a substantially free Western liberal democracy. This article considers how the methodologies of those organisations assess the impact upon media freedom of a range of recent decisions and actions by Australian politicians, judges and government agencies. There is considerable evidence of a shift towards official secrecy and suppression of information flow. However, according to this analysis such developments are unlikely to impact significantly on Australia’s international ranking in media freedom indices. This article uses the methodologies of RSF and Freedom House to explore whether the international free expression organisations’ criteria are justifiably weighted towards violence against journalists, their imprisonment and formal anti-press laws and might allow for a nuanced comparison of other evidence of constraints on the news media in developed democracies.


Fernandez, J. M., and Pearson, M. (2015). Shield laws in Australia: Legal and ethical implications for journalists and their confidential sources. Pacific Journalism Review, 21(1): 61-78.

This article examines whether Australia’s current shield law regime meets journalists’ expectations and whistleblower needs in an era of unprecedented official surveillance capabilities. According to the peak journalists’ organisation, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), two recent Australian court cases ‘despite their welcome outcome for our members, clearly demonstrate Australia’s patchy and disparate journalist shields fail to do their job’ (MEAA, 2014a). Journalists’ recent court experiences exposed particular shield law inadequacies, including curious omissions or ambiguities in legislative drafting (Fernandez, 2014c, p. 131); the ‘unusual difficulty’ that a case may present (Hancock Prospecting No 2, 2014, para 7); the absence of definitive statutory protection in three jurisdictions—Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory (Fernandez, 2014b, p. 26); and the absence of uniform shield laws where such law is available (Fernandez, 2014b, pp. 26-28). This article examines the following key findings of a national survey of practising journalists: (a) participants’ general profile (b) familiarity with shield laws: (c) perceptions of shield law effectiveness and coverage: (d) perceptions of story outcomes when relying on confidential sources; and (e) concerns about official surveillance and enforcement. The conclusion briefly considers the significance and limitations of this research; future research directions; some reform and training directions; and notes that the considerable efforts to secure shield laws in Australia might be jeopardised without better training of journalists about the laws themselves and how surveillance technologies and powers might compromise 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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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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Journalists face jail for reporting intelligence operations – with no public interest defence

By MARK PEARSON

The Australian Government’s passage this week of the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 is highly likely to impact on Australia’s standing in international media freedom rankings like Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF’s) World Press Freedom Index.

Media Watch cites this journlaw post

ABC Media Watch cites this journlaw post in its 6 October 2014 episode

The legislation amended the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 (‘ASIO Act), and the Intelligence Services Act 2001 (bizarrely abbreviated as the ‘IS Act’).

The new law leaves journalists and bloggers liable to 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’ (Section 35P of the ASIO Act).

The legislation seems aimed at whistleblowers like Edward Snowden or Wikileaks, but as Ben Grubb reported in smh.com.au, it casts its net so wide that it relies on the goodwill of the government of the day not to pursue ordinary journalists and commentators if they happen to stumble across such an operation and report upon it.

35P Unauthorised disclosure of information

(1)  A person commits an offence if:

(a)  the person discloses information; and

(b)  the information relates to a special intelligence operation.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 5 years.

Speaking to The Australian’s legal affairs editor Chris Merritt this week, I suggested an operation like that involving former Gold Coast doctor Mohamed Haneef in 2006 might have triggered such a consequence if it had been deemed a ‘special intelligence operation’.

That particular arrest was the result of an Australian Federal Police investigation, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility to see ASIO involved in future such operations.

It was only thorough investigative reporting based upon leaks that led to a Gold Walkley Award for journalist Hedley Thomas at The Australian that exposed the flaws in the prosecution case against Haneef, and led to his later release and exoneration.

While Thomas and other national security writers would not want to compromise an anti-terror operation, you could certainly see them pursuing rigorous reporting of such a matter if a serious injustice appeared to be done or public safety was being placed in jeopardy.

And that is the problem – there is no ‘public interest’ defence available under the laws that have just passed both houses of the Australian Parliament.

Further, there is nothing that would prevent prosecution of a journalist who inadvertently disclosed information about such an intelligence operation in the course of their normal reporting.

I was discussing this today with another Walkley Award winning editor of a regional newspaper who was concerned that an operation conducted in a regional centre would be such big news that it would be difficult not to cover it.

That might well meet the definition of such a disclosure, and the reporters dealing with it would likely not be as well briefed in national security laws as their national and metropolitan counterparts.

Either way, and as I explained to Chris Merritt in that interview this week, the law now presents journalists with a potential new conflict between their code of ethics and the law over which they might face jail.

Journalists have traditionally been willing to go to prison to protect their confidential sources – and in fact three Australian journalists have done time for just that over the past three decades.

Now we have this new situation where some journalists might be willing to defy this new law – and face up to 10 years in jail – if they see an overriding public interest in revealing the nature of such an operation.

If they choose to do so, sadly there will be no defence available to them.

This is just one of a series of detrimental developments for media freedom in Australia in recent months which I have documented previously – all of which are likely to see Australia’s ranking decline in the RSF index which is being compiled over the next two months.

The Australian measures are already on the international radar, as a recent World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) blog by media academic Julie Posetti demonstrated.

My frank view is that Australia is an ‘emerging Secret State’ – a topic I will be addressing at an upcoming conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Pacific Journalism Review in Auckland in November.

Of course I do not suggest Australia is at the far end of the spectrum like North Korea, China or Vietnam. We do not have the licensing of journalists or the jailing or torture of those opposing the government’s line.

However, when compared with other Western democracies we do not have the safeguards of free expression protections in a Bill of Rights or in a major constitutional amendment as in the US.

Sadly, this means new gags like this measure can be rushed through Parliament by a government seeking a tougher anti-terror image and an Opposition fearful of being seen to go soft on national security.

© 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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