In a move thought to be unprecedented in global sport, photographers from international news agencies like Reuters, AFP, AP and Getty Images have been locked out of AFL games for season 2007.

Their work has been replaced by an agency created by the AFL to manage the League’s press photography. Geoff Slattery Publishing, publishers of the AFL Record, has the contract to manage AFL photography.

But the scheme has raised serious questions about press freedom and the right of news organisations to report on public events. Crikey has received a copy of a letter sent to AFL boss Andrew Demetriou last week by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) detailing their concerns – read it here.

Larry Kilman, Director of Communications at WAN, yesterday told Crikey that the AFL’s decision is the most radical plan yet by sports organisations to control media coverage of their events.

“In addition to providing entertainment, sports events are news, and restricting news coverage of a public event in this way is a grave violation of the right to freedom of information as protected by numerous international conventions,” Kilman said.

Another group affected by the move are sponsors, whose deals with bodies like the AFL are predicated on exposure. Stuart Hannagan, Director of Photography at Getty Images, points out that his organisation alone fields 25,000 editorial enquiries per day (a small percentage are AFL related), has deals with 49 Australian and hundreds of international newspapers, and sells AFL photos into China, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, the U.S, South Africa and so on. But those clients are now effectively quarantined from the AFL.

Hannagan predicts that the Australian market will also shrink, which is a damaging outcome for a sport actively trying to colonise new markets.

“A newspaper in northern NSW for example will now take images of rugby league or union, horse racing or the Supercars instead,” Hannagan told Crikey. “In some ways, the AFL is lucky it’s a provincial sport. If this was golf or tennis, there would be outrage in the global news community,” Hannagan told Crikey.

Shutting out an organisation like Getty also affects the local papers. Crikey understands The Age has a contract with Getty, an organisation that until now has supplied about 50% of its footy photos. Now The Age will send more of its own photographers to cover games, and presumably some of its lawyers to Getty to unravel the awkward contractual position.

The other big losers are footy fans. Daily papers make a significant contribution to the daily AFL conversation, a conversation which is now subject, pictorially at least, to the AFL’s corporate scrutineers.

Clearly, if newspapers thought that fueling the fires of fandom was an interest they shared with the AFL, they’re being told to think again.

As for Geoff Slattery Publishing, Geoff Slattery protests that he is simply a ”small businessman” attempting to make inroads in an established market, albeit a small businessman enjoying the intangible benefit of sharing office space with the AFL in its Docklands HQ. ”We won the right to be the affiliated photographer of the AFL. It was a process called ‘expressions of interest’,” he said.

GSP could not be held responsible for the exclusion of other operators from AFL matches. ”Any issues relating to accreditation are the province of the AFL,” Slattery said.