There’s a lot less to the fuss over journalists’ access to Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory than meets the eye. Last week, a group of senior journalists from most major NT media outlets jointly signed a letter to Federal Attorney General Philip Ruddock calling for a review of the NT land permit system. The claim is that it’s hindering journalists in their work.

I have some sympathy for journalists working in the Northern Territory and their capacity to access Aboriginal communities. But the reasons outlined in the letter are, I’m afraid, not strong.

The journalists refer to the “the Yarralin case” as an example of why they should be given unhindered access. They write:

“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 was not given notice that the hearing was to take place in the Yarralin community on Aboriginal land.”

Correct, but that’s a failing of the Supreme Court, not the land permits system.

The journalists continue: “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.”

It may well have been the wish of Yarralin elders for media not to attend the hearing, but it was certainly not their right. Yarralin is not on Aboriginal land. The journalists didn’t need a permit to attend. If there was a decision to exclude journalists (and it’s worth noting that there wasn’t) it would have been a decision of the Supreme Court.

The fact that senior NT journos are quoting the Yarralin case to support their argument against the NT permit system gives you an indication of the strength of their argument and the level of impediment they face.

It’s basic common sense that any responsible, professional journalist should be allowed access to courts to report proceedings, even if the sittings are on Aboriginal land. But then, no-one in the Aboriginal land movement in the Northern Territory has ever opposed that principle.

The fact is, since the creation of the Land Rights Act in 1976, no journalist has ever been refused access to court proceedings on Aboriginal land. Even more noteworthy is that the Northern Land Council has only ever received four applications – two for native title cases and two more recently for the court proceedings surrounding the Wadeye rioters. All applications were approved.

The Central Land Council has not received a single application from a journalist to cover a court case. Period. So we’re not exactly talking about a major crisis.

I’m all for responsible, professional NT journalists like Murray McLaughlin (ABC) and Lindsay Murdoch (The Age) – both of whom have a long an impressive track record in reporting Indigenous issues — being given year-long (or even five-year) permits to attend court.

However, I don’t support the right of journalists to gain unfettered access to Aboriginal land outside court hearings, which is what this debate is really about.

Boiled down, it is simply an issue of “sovereignty” – either you support the right of Aboriginal people to determine who comes onto their land and the circumstances under which they come (a right other Australians enjoy as freehold title owners) or you don’t.

If you don’t, then logically you must also support the right for journalists to access your backyard whenever they want, and without permission. And that means you also support their right to stay, even when you ask them to leave. Given that every year, journalists are ranked at the bottom end of the Most Trusted Profession list (just above used car salesman) I doubt there’d be any popular support for the proposal.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t get up – we are, after all, only talking about Aboriginal property rights, something that the federal government ideologically opposes.

As with all things “Indigenous affairs”, you can expect the federal government to continue to run a campaign mired in dishonesty with claims like ‘the permit system prevents Aboriginal people from participating in society’. Let’s hope the media – there to defend the legal, land and human rights of ALL Australians – don’t hop into bed with them.

Peter Fray

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