On Monday we mark World Press Freedom Day, which should give us pause this year as we reflect on how precious freedom of expression can be, and how easily it can be denied.

If we needed any reminder how fragile that freedom can be, we should consider the struggle our colleagues in Pakistan are having as they try to bring the truth out of Taliban-controlled Swat province.

Journalists have been issued with direct threats by militants operating there — letters have been delivered to the offices of media organisations naming individual reporters and threatening dire consequences if they do not change the tone of their reporting. Other journalists in Pakistan have been detained or put under pressure because the Government or the security services don’t like what they have to say.

We are fortunate in Australia that, on the whole and barring the occasional incident or scuffle outside a courtroom, journalists can at least operate in relative safety. But there is still much to be done to ensure that the people of this country are kept fully informed about the way we are governed and the people we have elected as our representatives.

A cloak of secrecy still envelopes the activities of government in this country. There is an assumption that public information held by government, which should by rights be held in trust for all the people, is instead to be considered confidential.

Some changes announced in the past year will go some way to help break down that culture — but many of the Rudd Government’s reforms are really half measures and effectively fall short on encouraging full disclosure.

For instance, the Government followed up on its 2007 election promise to abolish conclusive certificates and has released draft Freedom of Information reforms that indicate a commitment to open government and access to information.

But rather than rethinking the outdated concept of Cabinet secrecy, it still wants to keep Cabinet papers hidden from view for two decades. The Australian people have a right to know how the major decisions of government are thrashed out.

There has been progress on providing protection for journalists who attempt to shield the identity of their sources. But the proposed law leaves it to judges to determine if the court will uphold privilege rather than presuming in favour of journalists.

The proposed protection for whistleblowers covers issues of public health and safety issues, but not the exposure of corruption and maladministration. While there has been recognition of some rights for whistleblowers, it is just as crucial that the rights of the media are recognised.

In late December last year the Government announced an overhaul of the anti-terror legislation, including removing many archaic sedition provisions. Until the exposure draft legislation is released later this year, it’s unclear if a new definition will permit legitimate dissent and allow journalists, photographers and cartoonists to do their jobs.

The cloak of secrecy is not confined to governments. In the courts, there has been an explosion in the use of suppression orders suggesting an urgent need for a review of their use. Calls for new legal restrictions relating to privacy would only barricade legitimate information away from proper public scrutiny.

The Alliance has welcomed the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of Australia’s secrecy laws in which we have stated that the release of information held by governments or public service agencies should be automatically subject to a public interest test.

Media employers have worked with the Alliance through Australia’s Right To Know coalition to strip away areas kept secret by legislation and government action, to examine how journalists can better fulfil their duty of informing society about itself. In the current economic climate, with many areas of the media under cost pressures, we believe employers also have a duty: to demonstrate a commitment to the investment and proper resourcing of quality journalism.

Just 12 months ago in Perth, we were horrified at a raid on The Sunday Times by 27 police offers from Western Australia’s Major Fraud squad. In September last year we saw Australian Federal Police raid the home and car of a journalist with The Canberra Times. Our two colleagues Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey must carry criminal convictions because they carried out their professional responsibilities and respected confidences.

Anti-corruption bodies such as the Crime and Misconduct Commission in Queensland, the Corruption and Crime Commission in Western Australia, the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales and the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner still have the power to call journalists as witnesses and threaten them with jail for trying to protect their sources. We don’t even necessarily know to what extent some of these bodies are using — or abusing — these powers as the journalists themselves are often forbidden to tell anyone they have been subpoenaed.

The good news is that the industry as a whole, the big media groups and the journalists, through the Press Freedom Committee of the Media Alliance, are working together in an effective coalition to bring about real progress.

This is not about the right to print or broadcast whatever we like, it is about upholding and protecting the people’s right to know important information about the way we are governed. It should be an inalienable right and we will campaign and lobby until it is upheld.

Christopher Warren is the federal secretary of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance The Alliance report, Secrecy and Red Tape: the State of Press Freedom in Australia 2009 will be released this evening at the annual Alliance Press Freedom Dinner. For information about the dinner, call membership on: 1300 656 913.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW