It’s time for the government to speak out on media freedom in Australia

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When the Australian Federal Police (AFP) attacked journalists and media organizations two years ago, it showed that the balance between national security and journalism was seriously out of balance in Australia.

To remedy this, a Senate inquiry into press freedom Was launched. His report, released this week, found 17 reviews – many of which go much further than the previous ones ask for information in freedom of the media.

This week’s report recognizes, across parties, the imbalance between national security and public service journalism in Australia.

ABC reported This week, the Senate investigation found that “government agencies should have to prove ‘real and serious’ harm caused by the release of classified intelligence and information before a criminal investigation can be launched.”

The Senate investigation report mentionned:

Without such a requirement, the provisions would be susceptible to overuse, misuse or even abuse. In particular, the absence of an explicit prejudice requirement may lead to circumstances in which a journalist is prosecuted for very minor or insignificant “processing” of classified information.

When she testified at the inquest, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) was asked to provide examples of instances where a publication had clearly harmed Australian national security. ASIO could not produce a single example.

The report acknowledges that the Attorney General is examining the powers granted to our intelligence and security agencies and their effect on national security media coverage.

But that’s not all. The report also acknowledges a point made by several submissions that Australia stands out in the international community when it comes to the powers granted to its intelligence and security agencies.

He quotes a submission from myself and Denis Muller, senior researcher at the Center for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, asking why Australia is the only country among mature liberal democratic countries

[…] which sees the need to endow its security and intelligence agencies with powers that extend to the issuance and execution of search warrants against journalists and media organizations, justified by the hunt for whistleblowers of public interest in the name of national security?

AFP raided the ABC’s Sydney offices in 2019 over reports that Australian troops had committed war crimes.
Image AAP / David Gray

A sharper and more urgent language

The recommendations of this week’s Senate inquiry follow the same report released last year by the powerful Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS). This committee also recognized, on both sides, that an imbalance between national security and media freedom – favoring security and secrecy – has grown since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States. .

However, the PJCIS report recommended what some committee members described as the bare minimum to redress the imbalance.

This week’s Senate investigation report is different. It takes into account the recommendations of the PJCIS, but its wording is more precise and urgent.



Read more: Security committee recommends bare minimum reform to protect press freedom


Freedom of information and “ a culture of transparency ”

The report points out that Australia’s Federal Freedom of Information (FOI) laws do not meet their objective of facilitating independent access to information held by the government.

It recommends that the government work with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) ​​to promote a culture of transparency.

It is a noble feeling. The problem is that consecutive federal governments, since 2013, have deprived the CATO of resources. There was money in the recent federal budget for a separate Freedom of Information Commissioner operating outside the CATO. However, the overall resources of the CATO remain too low to allow them to properly do their advocacy work for transparency.

It would also be helpful if our intelligence and national security agencies were effectively covered by the Freedom of Information Act, which they are not currently. This is another way Australia stands out from most other mature liberal democracies.

A well-functioning access to information system would also make journalists less dependent on whistleblowers.

The report pays considerable attention to the plight of whistleblowers. Instead of being thanked for their courageous revelations of corruption and maladministration, our current legal framework allows governments to prosecute them and threaten them with excessively long prison terms and fines.

The report recommends far-reaching reforms to our public interest disclosure laws to achieve what they were supposed to do (but currently don’t): adequately protect whistleblowers.

Protesters hold signs saying
Our current legal framework allows governments to prosecute and threaten whistleblowers with extremely long jail terms and fines.
AP / Rod McGuirk

Dissenting opinions and proposed law on freedom of the media

The government senators who joined this inquiry attached a dissenting point of view stressing that they could not agree with all of the recommendations, given that some of them were already being implemented on the basis of the PJCIS report.

The Greens have attached a section suggesting a law on freedom of the media. This act has been suggested by a number of inquiry submissions.

The law would remedy the lack of a bill of rights in the Australian Constitution protecting freedom of speech and media freedom. It would work as a counterweight when the government considered any law that would hamper the freedom and independence of the media.

It is unfortunate that the committee could not agree on this recommendation to all parties. This would have been the most efficient and comprehensive way to deal with the issues in question.



Read more: Australia needs a media freedom law. Here is how it might work


A somewhat jaded view

It was good to see relative newcomers come forward and testify as part of the investigation. However, elders like myself and many colleagues who have made the same arguments over the past 20 years have little hope that federal governments led by one of the major parties will lead by example.

This somewhat jaded view is rightly justified by revelations that in 2018-2019, approximately half of non-personal access to information requests were not finalized within the deadline. Despite this, the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, called the efforts of the FOI section “laudable”.

There remains a troubling imbalance between government secrecy and the ability of journalists to do their job as independent watchdogs.

The federal government now has a detailed plan on how to become more open and transparent at all levels, including national security.

It’s time to talk, but I can’t hold my breath.



Read more: Explainer: What did the High Court find in the Annika Smethurst / AFP case?




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