A group of journalists from The Age, The Australian, ABC, AAP and The Bulletin has sent Crikey a copy of a submission outlining their concerns about the media’s inability to access courts on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory under the current permits system.

The journalists claim that under the current Land Rights Act, the Northern Territory “is the only place in Australia where court hearings can be closed to members of the public and the media, and therefore not subject to scrutiny, without any court order and without any power of the court to make such an order.”

The submission was originally submitted to Clare Martin’s Government on October 3 2005 but the journalists claim that the NT government has failed to act on their concerns and they now intend to send a new submission to Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, who this week floated the idea of doing away with permits altogether.

The submission states:

Senior media representatives in the Northern Territory wish to raise, as a matter of urgency, their serious concerns about the inability of the media to attend and report on court proceedings involving the Aboriginal community. Our concerns arise because courts in the Northern Territory frequently hold these proceedings on Aboriginal land…..

…To enter onto Aboriginal land for the purposes of attending a court proceeding, all members of the public, including journalists, must first obtain a permit. To our knowledge, to date, any journalist who has sought such a permit has generally been denied or the response to the request is not received in time.

The submission also cites the example of the ‘Yarralin case’:

On 11 August 2005, the Northern Territory Chief Justice, Brian Martin, convened a special hearing at the Yarralin Aboriginal community regarding an important criminal matter involving an unlawful sexual assault against a minor, for which the defendant was convicted. While the hearing was listed on the Supreme Court website and was an open hearing, the media were not given notice that the hearing was to take place in the Yarralin community on Aboriginal land. We have also been informed by the Supreme Court that Aboriginal community elders had indicated to the Court that it was the community’s wish that media not attend the hearing. …

Had the media been given notice of the location of the hearing and the fact that we would not be permitted to attend, we would have sought to legally challenge the ‘closed court’, as is our right.

Spokesperson for NT Chief Minister Clare Martin, Aaron Ross, told Crikey, “we acknowledge that this is an issue for journalists that want to cover court cases on Aboriginal land and the Northern Territory government has actively sought to address this issue through consultation with the Land Council…”

But Crikey understands that no one has ever been refused a permit, and that no journalist has ever applied for one.

Michelle Fraser from NT Attorney-General Syd Stirling’s office told Crikey, “no one has actually been knocked back.”

Fraser said that the Justice Department is currently considering the submission in conjunction with the Land Council, and in the meantime, “we’ve told the journalists that we’ve had agreement from all land councils to allow journalists automatic access to aboriginal communities for the purpose of covering court cases…”

“The difficulty for the journalists is that they have to be aware of court cases in advance…but if they are aware of a court case, they are welcome to apply for a permit…”

Crikey understands that journalists can obtain a permit in a matter of hours. We contacted the Northern Territory Land Council but they didn’t get back to us before deadline.

Peter Fray

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