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Australia: Media groups call for reforms to protect press freedom (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 2 August 2019.

The Australia’s Right To Know media industry lobbying group, which includes MEAA, has recommended a complete review of laws that inhibit press freedom.

The recommendations were made in a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s inquiry into the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press.

The submission was written by 14 groups including media companies and associations. It addressed several key issues including the need to uphold the public’s right to know and protection for whistleblowers, as well as the increasing classification of government information that should be made available plus the raft of new laws that criminalise legitimate journalism that is in the public interest.

The submission said: “While the AFP raids are the catalyst for the inquiry, the media organisations represented by ARTK feel strongly that the portrayal of our long-held and serious concerns regarding the precarious state of the Australian public’s right to know as being limited to law enforcement and national security matters does not sufficiently reflect the full extent of the issues faced by Australian media companies and the community. In our view, the terms of reference for this inquiry do not sufficiently cover the breadth and complexity of the issues we should be addressing in this forum.

“The PJCIS is the parliamentary body that has scrutinised and approved a swathe of recent national security laws that have undermined the public’s right to know, pursued whistleblowers who seek to expose misconduct, and introduced jail terms for journalists for doing their job of keeping the community informed about what our governments are doing in our name.”

The submission said: “ARTK has serious reservations about whether this inquiry is the right way to achieve the outcomes we believe are necessary to redress the combined impact of more than a decade of law making in the name of national security.”

The submission went on to say: “Law reform is necessary and urgent. The combined effect of more than a decade of laws that individually create a proliferation of ways in which journalists can be exposed to the threat of criminal charges for simply reporting uncomfortable or unpleasant realities is now a matter of serious national concern. For the most part, these laws have very little to do with national security and everything to do with the exercise of power and the desire to avoid scrutiny.”

The submission called for law reform in several key areas:

1. The right to contest the application for warrants for journalists and media organisations;
2. Public sector whistleblowers must be adequately protected – the current law needs to change;
3. A new regime that limits which documents can be stamped “secret”;
4. A properly functioning freedom of information (FOI) regime;
5. Exemptions for journalists from laws that would put them in jail for doing their jobs, including security laws enacted over the last seven years; and
6. Defamation law reform.

ARTK also chided the conflicting statements from politicians who say they support press freedom. “Various Government Ministers have claimed in the wake of the recent AFP raids that there is full support for the operation of a free media. Disappointingly, others have suggested that the mere fact that a journalist may be in possession of leaked documents should be sufficient for them to be considered to have committed a criminal offence.

“This amounts to suggesting that a necessary element in the reporting of matters of public interest is the receipt of information which is not publicly known is sufficient to support a finding of criminal activity on the part of a journalist who is doing nothing other than their job.

“This, it seems to us, is the nub of the problem this inquiry should have as its main focus. How can we ensure that the public’s right to be informed of the actions taken by Government in their name is sufficiently protected? There is no reference in any legislation to the importance of the right to know and there are no safeguards in place to force legislators to build protections into legislation.

“It is dismissive to describe this situation as merely one that is causing journalists ‘anxiety’. This ignores the very real threat posed to democracy through inaction or bureaucratic and political intervention. It is unlikely any Australian going about their job would not be anxious if they found themselves subject to potential AFP raids, criminal charges and jail time because they communicated something to other members of the public that would be in their best interest to know, even if the Government may not want that information disclosed.”

The submission also addressed what it called the “myth” of balancing free speech with the requirements of national security. “The right to free speech, a free media and access to information – in service of the public’s right to know – are fundamental to Australia’s modern democratic society: a society that prides itself on openness, responsibility and accountability.

“However, unlike some comparable modern democracies, Australia has no national laws enshrining these rights. In the US the right to freedom of communication and freedom of the press are enshrined in the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution and enacted by state and federal laws. In the United Kingdom, freedom of expression is protected under section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 subject to appropriate restrictions to protect other rights that are considered necessary in a democratic society.

“The absence of such an explicit right in Australia means that every law that restricts the public’s right to know challenges the fundamental principles that are the foundation of a modern, liberal democratic society.”

Download the full submission HERE.

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