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Protect Press Freedom | Australia

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Australian Federal Police (AFP) conducted raids on a journalist’s home and the offices of the ABC last June.

On June 4th, AFP offices raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst home over an alleged national security leak [2].

The following day the AFP raided the ABC offices to seize documents in relation to ABC’s 2017 investigation into allegations of Australian soldiers unlawfully killing Afghan civilians [1].

Both raids were conducted after Australian citizens voted in the 2019 Federal Election, held on May 28 with the coalition reforming government.

According to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, Australia’s press freedom is not constitutionally guaranteed.

“…the High Court has ruled that language in the constitution implies a right to freedom of expression, and the government generally respects this principle. In the state of Victoria, press freedom is explicitly protected under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.”

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In June 2018 new espionage laws passed with bipartisan support which now threatens journalists with heavy prison sentences for reporting against ‘Australian interests’.

In December 2018 anti-encryption laws are passed with bipartisan support which undermines a journalist’s ability to protect the identity of their sources and whistleblowers [3].

Globally there is a decline in freedom of the press. According to Freedom House global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016. Only 13 per cent of the world’s population enjoys complete press freedom.

To be considered ‘free’, ‘coverage of political news must be robust, the safety of journalists guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures’.

With United States President Donald Trump disparages the press and rejects the media’s role in holding governments to account for their words and actions. This is dangerous and an attack on the fourth estate.

The Australian government needs to create a Media Freedom Act now. Journalists should not have to choose between jail time and reporting the truth. According to an independent organisation [4]GetUp, a Media Freedom Act would:

  1. Safeguard journalists and their sources: Journalists should not be forced to reveal confidential data and sources to politicians or government agencies.
  2. Protect whistleblowers: all disclosures made in the public interest by whistleblowers to journalists must be protected under the public’s right to know.
  3. Restore the public’s right to know: The public’s right to know what is being done in our name must be restored by establishing greater transparency in the issuing of media suppression orders.
  4. Reduce the threat of lawsuits by introducing a public interest defence to stop politicians and government agencies threatening journalists with legal action to silence critical reporting.
  5. Protect against criminal liability by amending national security legislation to protect journalists engaged in legitimate public interest journalism.

Sources:

[1] ‘ABC’s Sydney headquarters raided by Australian Federal Police over Afghan Files stories’, ABC, 5 June 2019
[2] ‘Australian Federal Police raid News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home over alleged national security leak’, ABC, 4 June 2019
[3] ‘Obviously dangerous’: Labor doubles down on encryption bill with press freedom warning’, SMH, 1 December 2018
[4] ‘Protect Press Freedom’ GetUp Australia, 2019.

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