Press Freedoms

July 30, 2019

Thirty years ago, the thing I feared most as a young journalist was the public humiliation of being singled out by the ABC's Media Watch for having in some way stepped outside the journalists' code of ethics, or maybe getting something wrong, or perhaps being sued for defamation by a litigious high-profile person. Those things still happen. But these days the stakes are so much higher. As we saw from the Australian Federal Police raids on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and on the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the attempt to fingerprint and palm-print two ABC journos, the threat to raid Ben Fordham at 2GB plus the plan to raid the News Corp headquarters in Surry Hills, there's a grave threat to press freedom in Australia.

Last month the AFP all but confirmed that ABC and News Corp journalists could be charged for publishing protected information in two different stories—the alleged unlawful killings by Australian troops in Afghanistan, and plans to expand powers for spying on Australian citizens. An article reports:

… the AFP is 'a strong supporter of press freedom' but …
What it's really saying is that the laws have moved to no longer protect press freedoms. What does it mean for democracy and transparency if journalists can be jailed for exposing government and agency plans that it is in the public interest to know? Journalists and whistleblowers who are prepared to speak about things they consider unlawful, unethical or just plain awful are a vital part of a free, democratic society.

The journey to this point has not been without warning. The 2018 survey by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which represents journalists—and of which both my husband and I have been members since becoming journalists in the early 1980s—showed journalistic freedoms had deteriorated over the previous decade. As the MEAA said:

Journalism is under attack with national security laws, metadata retention, poor protections for whistleblowers, the over-use of suppression orders by courts and flawed freedom of information processes all combining to make it harder for journalists to do their job.

The MEAA goes on to point out that legislating for Australia's national security has drifted a long way from the fight against terrorism. And when you have governments criminalise the innocent receiving of information, it's hard to see how investigative journalists will hold anyone to account.

I agree with the MEAA that journalists need to be able to bring to light uncomfortable truths to scrutinise the powerful and inform communities. Investigative journalism can't survive without the courage of whistleblowers, who typically sacrifice their careers and often much more as they seek to bring light to instances of wrongdoing, illegal activities, fraud, corruption and threats to public health and safety. These sentiments are supported in my own electorate by many, including Blue Mountains Unions and Community, who are concerned about the effect of the AFP approach on the future of public interest journalism and freedom of the press.
I think the actions also reinforce the need for strong oversight powers by parliamentary committees on security agencies. In the words of Doug Cameron, who has pushed for a standing committee to provide oversight:

In a democracy you can't hand over to the AFP and security services complete and unequivocal independence from parliamentary oversight … Once you start giving these agencies more power we have to have more oversight.

I note that in the UK the Intelligence and Security Committee can review operational information where it's provided voluntarily, and the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence can review operations as part of its day-to-day brief.

Before I finish, I'd like to make note of the ABC's John Lyons. John and I crossed paths briefly in the mid-eighties in the Canberra press gallery and I congratulate him on his tweeting of the ABC raids. I was riveted by his moment-by-moment coverage and by his incredulity at the implications of a warrant that allowed the AFP to add, copy, delete or alter material in the ABC's computers. We need journos to stay unflinching, fearless and free.