By Jenny Denton
Australia’s recent performance on press freedom has been so bad that a national conversation is needed on the core value of the public’s right to know and the role of journalists in fulfilling it, according to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
“In just a few short years, Australia has fallen from being a bastion of press freedom to a country … that allow[s] government agencies to pursue journalists and their sources and criminalises legitimate journalism in the public interest,” CEO Paul Murphy writes in the introduction to the MEAA’s 2016 press freedom report.
The report, Criminalising the Truth, Suppressing the Right to Know, released early in May, focuses substantially on the impacts to press freedom of national security legislation passed by the Australian Parliament in 2015.
It includes the text of a speech delivered by veteran political reporter Laurie Oakes at the Melbourne Press Club’s inaugural Press Freedom dinner last year which addressed the threats to journalistic freedom posed by three main tranches of legislation.
The most significant of these, Oakes said, was the Data Retention Bill requiring the 2-year mandatory retention of telecommunications metadata, which was confirmed by a parliamentary committee to be partly aimed at pursuing journalists’ confidential sources.
According to the MEAA, provisions introduced into the legislation to preserve journalists’ capacity to protect sources by protecting their metadata provide “no safeguard at all”.
The Journalist Information Warrant scheme, which requires agencies to apply for access to a journalist’s metadata, operates entirely in secret, the report points out, and the Public Interest Advocate who will represent journalists’ interests is appointed by the Prime Minister.
In an overview of national security legislation, researcher Keiran Hardy writes that Australia’s suite of security laws, while “created in response to the threat of terrorist incidents” have been framed to try to “control the flow of information, persecute and prosecute whistleblowers … and minimise scrutiny of government agencies”.
Included in the report is a Guardian Australia article by journalist Paul Farrell about the discovery, in April this year, that his metadata had been exhaustively accessed by the Australian Federal Police, who were pursuing his sources on reports into the government’s asylum seeker regime and Australian incursions into Indonesian waters.
The AFP were empowered to investigate and prosecute leaks to Farrell under section 70 of the Crimes Act, which criminalises the “unauthorised disclosure” of information by a Commonwealth officer.
The call to repeal section 70 of the Crimes Act (which has also been made by the Australian Law Reform Commission) is among a series of “steps” listed in the report that the MEAA believes need to be taken to create true press freedom in Australia and move the country back towards open and transparent governance.
- National security laws to be comprehensively reviewed and the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and other relevant entities to be properly resourced for this task
- Journalists' ethical obligation to protect the identity of confidential sources to be recognised, not circumvented by secretly accessing their telecommunications data, with determinations on the issuing of Journalist Information Warrants made in secret by a Prime Minister-appointed Public Interest Advocate with no media experience
- Section 70 of the Crimes Act, which criminalises the unauthorised disclosure of information by a Commonwealth officer to be repealed
- The Australian Public Service to adequately resource its staff to comply quickly and completely with freedom of information requests.
- Principles of open government to be extended to the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, with information made freely available and not filtered by public affairs personnel
- The judiciary to play its role by taking greater note of the public interest when requests for suppression orders are made
- Australia to sign the International Convention for the Protection of Persons from Enforced Disappearances and end the impunity around the killings of nine Australian journalists
Download the 2016 MEAA press freedom report
Watch Laurie Oakes' 2015 Press Freedom Dinner speech