Australia must strengthen press freedom laws and promote transparency, survey finds | freedom of the press
Laws to protect public interest journalism should be strengthened and a culture of transparency promoted, recommended a report by a Senate committee on freedom of the press.
Media companies told the inquiry that press freedom and the protection of whistleblowers are essential to democracy and must be weighed against national security issues.
Tabled in parliament on Wednesday, the report contains 17 recommendations, including improving freedom of information laws that often produce documents so redacted they are unnecessary and amending the criminal code to reverse the burden on journalists to prove that their stories are in the public interest.
Chaired by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the inquiry was sparked by the 2019 Australian Federal Police raid on the home of a News Corp reporter seeking information about the publication of classified documents, which may followed by a raid on ABC headquarters following reports of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.
Last year, AFP ruled out prosecuting the journalist, Annika Smethurst, or anyone else for her story revealing plans to expand the spy powers of Australia’s Signals Authority.
Commonwealth prosecutors also declined to charge ABC journalist Dan Oakes due to “public interest” considerations.
National and international outrage followed the raids, which were seen as an attack on press freedom, and culminated in assurances that journalists will not be prosecuted without the consent of the attorney general.
“The 17 recommendations in this report show that we need to change some of our laws to ensure we protect Australians’ right to know,” said Hanson-Young.
“Covid-19 has shown that access to accurate and complete information has never been more important. Yet, at the same time, we have also seen less information available to the public under the guise of Covid and of national security.
“Whether the government is hiding behind national cabinet confidentiality and refusing freedom of information requests, or refusing to answer questions about vaccine rollout and hotel quarantine, the public’s right to know is being thwarted. .”
The Senate report follows the release in August of the report of another investigation triggered by the raids: the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS).
The Joint Parliamentary Committee said media companies should be left in the dark before warrants are carried out, but a public interest advocate should advocate for press freedom during hearings on warrants.
For offenses where national security infringes on freedom of the press, warrants must be issued by a judge of a superior court of record, addressing concerns that the ABC warrant was issued by a clerk of a court local.
Constitutional law scholar Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, said the recommendations go further than the PJCIS last year.
“He says, in more powerful language, that freedom and openness of the press is really important; that government accountability and transparency is really important and that we need to do more to promote these things,” Ananian-Welsh told Guardian Australia.
“And a lot of that is about reinforcing the things that we already have, like making sure the Freedom of Information Act is working properly and that there’s a culture of transparency, which also recognizes that there’s a culture of secrecy in government, a culture of secrecy problem”.
In a dissenting report, government senators said they could not accept all of the committee’s recommendations because some overlapped with those of the PJCIS, some were already underway and some were contradictory.
In a minority report, the Greens called for a media freedom law to enshrine protections for public interest journalism.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance said the recommendations would help curb the growing culture of government secrecy, end the persecution of whistleblowers and prevent journalists from being prosecuted for simply doing their work.
Meaa Media Chairman Marcus Strom said the report had gone a long way to reducing the overbreadth of national security laws.
“After nearly two decades of heightened secrecy, culminating in lawsuits against journalists for doing their job, these recommendations would restore journalists’ confidence that they can cover national security issues without the threat of legal action,” he said. said Strom.
Strom welcomed recommendations to amend the Asio Act, the Penal Code Act and the use of coercive powers to prosecute journalists under the Crimes Act.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s senior lawyer, Kieran Pender, said the public has a right to know what our government is doing on our behalf and that whistleblower protection is vital to our democracy.
“As recommended by the committee, the government should urgently reform the whistleblower law, revise the draconian secrecy law and legislate better protections for journalists,” Pender told Guardian Australia.
“The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions should also review the prosecution of Afghan whistleblower David McBride, as well as the prosecution of Bernard Collaery, Witness K and Richard Boyle. These lawsuits are not in the public interest and should be dropped.