Now more than ever we must stand up for press freedom, writes Christopher Warren. Cartoon by Glen Le Lievre.
When Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in September last year, “Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift,” it’s unlikely anyone envisaged the shift would result in the greatest assault on press freedom in Australia in peacetime.
The rollout of three tranches of national security laws has placed journalists at risk for simply doing their jobs. Our computers and communications are under surveillance, our work is compromised and our confidential sources face exposure. The media organisations we work for can have their computer networks copied, tampered with, altered or even deleted.
Under new ASIO powers, reporting news and information in the public interest will be tested by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, and if the journalist and media organisation have reported “recklessly” they face stiff jail terms (regardless of what the Attorney- General may say). Most recently, the parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has confirmed that the metadata retention bill will be used to identify journalists’ sources.
We now also know that when journalists write about asylum-seeker issues, they can be referred to the Australian Federal Police, who will investigate alleged “unauthorised” disclosures of information by the journalists’ sources. And, of course, the longer that asylum-seeker stories remain hidden behind government denials of access to information about what is going on in our name, the more journalists will have to rely on whistleblowers.
Just four years ago, politicians were embracing the concept of shield laws to protect journalist privilege. It was recognition of the journalists’ ethical obligation to never reveal the identity of confidential sources. That attitude, despite the statements supporting press freedom in the face of terror attacks, seems to have been forgotten in the rush to shift the delicate balance the prime minister was talking about. Even as recently as January, in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, he said: “Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a free society.”
MEAA has consistently opposed the assaults on press freedom contained in the three tranches of national security laws. We have sought a media exemption so that journalists can be allowed to do their jobs without fear of harassment, intimidation or having the integrity of their relationships with sources compromised.
But it is clear that in this chillier environment for journalism, we must take steps to protect ourselves, our news stories and our sources. We must educate ourselves on the laws that seek to impede and undermine our work. We must campaign for press freedom. We must encourage our employers to implement changes in the way we work and communicate to ensure our sources and stories are secured – and if need be, implement the tools of counter-intelligence including anonymisation and encryption for our data.
Journalists need to be more aware of the scope of the shield laws, which jurisdictions they operate in and what they cover. Journalists need to be aware that jurisdiction-shopping could expose them to subpoenas demanding they reveal the identity of a source only to discover that the state the subpoena originated in refuses to implement a shield.
Defamation law, despite the implementation of a national regime, also threatens our work. Litigation is increasingly expensive and damages are now being sought in astronomical sums that threaten to severely cripple cost-conscious media organisations. Earlier this year, Tasmania even attempted to break away from the uniform national defamation scheme by reinstituting the ability of corporations to sue. MEAA and many other organisations helped encourage the state government to back down on the plan.
Threats to press freedom can take many guises but they all share a common theme – a threat to the ability of the media to tell important news stories in the public interest. Any loss of jobs in our industry hampers that ability. Over the past three years we have seen up to 2500 jobs lost – for the most part in commercial media operations struggling to chase fragmented revenue and provide a service on a multitude of platforms. But the cuts to our public broadcasters announced last year were political decisions, broken election promises that slashed vital resources and skilled expertise from two great Australian institutions. Hundreds of jobs have been lost and we are all the poorer for it.
These assaults on press freedom in Australia are serious and unprecedented. But they are nothing compared to the dangers faced by our colleagues in the Asia-Pacific – the most deadly region for our profession – where 39 journalists and media workers were killed in 2014.
Five years after the death of 58 people including 32 journalists in the Philippines’ Ampatuan Massacre, impunity continues to reign across the country. President Aquino, who took office seven months after the massacre, has already seen 35 journalists killed during his administration. And meanwhile the massacre trial continues to drag on, with justice continuing to be denied to the families of the slain journalists.
Attacks on press freedom start with a delicate shift. Then, increasingly, journalists are targeted in efforts to control information. As we saw from the arrest and jailing of our colleague Peter Greste, simply doing your job can send you to jail. If no-one stands up for press freedom, it can also have you killed.
Christopher Warren is federal secretary of MEAA Glen Le Lievre contributes to The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald and The Age