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press freedom AFP

Last Friday, Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin revealed that an AFP officer had accessed a journalist’s telecommunications data without a “journalist information warrant ” —  in breach of amendments to the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, which had been passed by the Parliament 18 months earlier.

Why does this matter? Because the officer was accessing the data in order to discover the journalist’s confidential sources for a news story. It matters because whistleblowers rely on journalists to help reveal instances of dishonesty, corruption and threats to public health and safety. It matters because the data retention enabled by the act was about protecting us from terrorist attacks and maintaining national security. Instead, this legislation is being used to hunt down and pursue whistleblowers exposing stuff-ups that embarrass the government.

This is an instance of an attack on press freedom in Australia. It demonstrates that there is absolutely no respect for the public interest, whistleblowers coming forward, or investigative journalists being able to do their work. There is no respect for journalists’ essential need and ethical obligation to protect their confidential sources.

Today is UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, and MEAA is releasing The Chilling Effect — The Annual Report into the State of Press Freedom in Australia 2017, which is available at www.pressfreedom.org.au. The report catalogues the areas where press freedom is under attack in Australia. The breach by the AFP is just one example where the law, and the lawmakers, are working to muzzle the media and undermine democracy in Australia.

February 28, 2017, is another example. On that day, a parliamentary committee reported that after a four-month inquiry into “freedom of speech” it couldn’t come up with any definitive plan. On the same day, the director-general of ASIO told another parliamentary committee that his agency is spying on journalists and media organisations using journalist information warrants to secretly trawl through their telecommunications data in the hunt for whistleblowers and confidential sources.

Such is the nature of press freedom’s political battleground in Australia: lots of talk about freedom of speech in the midst of an actual legislated assault on press freedom.

The parliament has also introduced prison terms for reporting on ASIO special intelligence operations. A subsequent inquiry recommended modest changes, albeit not removing the prison terms. It was believed these changes would “protect” journalists. But the lawmakers’ confused approach to press freedom struck again. Thanks to a senator’s suggestion, this “protection”, with its prison term penalties, is to be extended to journalists reporting on Australian Federal Police operations.

While lawmakers’ efforts have focused on criminalising legitimate public interest journalism and going after whistleblowers, long-standing press freedom concerns continue to be ignored.

There is a dire need to reform Australia’s uniform national defamation legislation that allows people to be paid tens of thousands of dollars damages for hurt feelings without ever having to demonstrate they have a reputation, let alone one that has been damaged. The regime was meant to be reviewed in 2011. That review was revived in 2015. It is still stalled.

[Rundle: the death of the 18C debate (and why this is all Andrew Bolt’s fault)]

Meanwhile, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory continue to refuse to introduce shield laws for journalists who face jail terms for refusing to name their confidential sources (as their ethics require). In the era of borderless publishing and jurisdiction shopping, it is only a matter of time before someone decides to use the courts to pursue a journalist who will then cop a fine, a jail term or both — plus a conviction for contempt of court for maintaining their ethical obligation.

The area of court reporting is becomingly increasingly frustrating for journalists in Victoria and South Australia with the ongoing over-use of suppression orders that are made in astonishing numbers compared to the relative lack of orders needed in other jurisdictions. Despite Victoria trying to reform the system in 2013, the problem is as out of control as ever. MEAA believes reform is needed not just at a state level but also nationally so that the media’s responsibility to report on the courts in the public interest is maintained without judges acting as editors, as censors, and even — way outside their responsibilities — as determiners of what is in the public interest.

Media organisations are also not helpful even when it’s in their own best interest. The sheer scale of redundancies that have taken, and continue to take, place at leading media houses demonstrates that media outlets are still engaging in the time-worn failed exercise of slashing staff in order to achieve cost-savings rather than investing in smarter solutions. There is a limit to more being done with less.

Audiences will not invest with time or money in media that does not deliver consistent, high-quality journalism. Removing layers and layers of editorial staff may provide a short-term redress for the bottom line but the damage to the masthead and to audience’s expectations is long-term.

But more insidious, is the gender gap that exists in media outlets. As Women in Media, an MEAA initiative, discovered in its Mates Over Merit report, there is an entrenched gender pay gap of 23.3% between the pay of men and women working in Australian media.

In the survey produced for the report, almost half of the respondents (48%) said they’d experienced intimidation, abuse or sexual harassment in the workplace. A quarter of the women who’d taken maternity leave said they’d been discriminated against upon return to work.

A staggering 41% of women working in the media say they have been harassed, bullied or trolled on social media while engaging with audiences, and several were silenced, or changed career. Only 16% of respondents were aware of their employer’s strategies to deal with threats.

There is clearly a problem that media organisations must address — for there can be no press freedom if journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty or fear.

Finally, our lawmakers and their law-enforcement agencies have been woeful in ensuring justice for murdered Australian journalists. Since 1975 nine of our colleagues have been killed and yet those responsible for their deaths are getting away with their murder. There is ample evidence for investigations and for the laying of charges.

The champions of press freedom need to do more than cloak themselves in glib phrases. A genuine roll-back of laws that undermine press freedom is vital if democracy in Australia is to function.

*To mark World Press Freedom Day UNESCO has released Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age, written by Australian journalism academic Julie Posetti  

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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