By MARK PEARSON
* Mark Pearson is Professor of Journalism and Social Media at Griffith University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. Parts of this blog were published in his earlier article in The Conversation.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott celebrated the release of journalist Peter Greste after 400 days in an Egyptian prison with these words at the National Press Club in Canberra on February 2:
“…sometimes as Australians we do take our most precious freedoms for granted. And as a former journalist myself it would be remiss of me at such a gathering of journalists not to express my personal delight and our nation’s relief at the overnight release of Peter Greste and to reiterate our support as a government and as a people for a free media and a free press.”
The Prime Minister was quite correct in stating Australians often take free expression for granted, but they might take the lead from both his government and the former Labor government in doing so. The Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Australia 28th of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index last year.
That is relatively high in the league table, and Australia rarely jails its journalists and has never murdered them. Such acts are more common in nations much lower down the press freedom ladder.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Peter Greste and his al Jazeera colleagues were among 221 imprisoned globally in 2014 and already this year 15 journalists have lost their lives in the course of their work.
However, Mr Abbott’s expressed “support as a government and as a people for a free media and a free press” rings somewhat hollow in the context of recent moves by Australian governments to shackle that freedom.
It is ironic that in the same week he made that statement the Prime Minister was calling for bipartisan support for his data retention laws which would force telecommunications companies to retain – and make available to government agencies – metadata including the time and location of phone calls, texts, emails, internet browsing, social media discussions and webcam communications.
That step alone – taken in the name of better national security – stands to damage irreparably the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
This is just one of several indicators that Australia has recently embarked upon a shift towards a “state of secrecy”.
It comes against the backdrop that, unlike the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and even Papua New Guinea, Australia has no national Bill of Rights or written constitutional or legislative protection of free expression or a free media.
Australia has only an “implied freedom” that our High Court justices have sadly read down over many decisions.
In its first year in office, the Abbott Government:
- withheld information on the fate of asylum seekers
- initiated major budget cuts to public broadcasters ABC and SBS
- secured a “super injunction” on reporting of court proceedings that might damage its international relations
- ramped up surveillance powers of national security agencies
- enabled agencies to ban reporting of security operations
- proposed increased jail terms for leaks related to security matters
- introduced a five-year jail sentence for reporting on any activity deemed to be a special intelligence operation.
- proposed what is effectively a tax on telcos to cover the cost of new surveillance measures
- moved to stop not-for-profit organisations advocating against government policy in their service agreements, and
- abolished the Office of the Information Commissioner, promising tardy FOI appeals, and
This is not simply an Abbott Liberal-National conservative government phenomenon. Governments have a natural inclination to control public debate. If they have the resources, mechanisms and opportunities available to them they will do so.
Australia’s previous Labor government wanted a new mechanism of media accountability because they were copping so much unfair criticism from the Murdoch press. Their knee-jerk reaction was to try to install a regulatory mechanism that any government of whatever political persuasion could use in the future.
All these measures undermine the role of Australia as a beacon of free expression in the Asia-Pacific region.
Whistleblowers are being snared by the various surveillance laws and the technologies available to detect them. They are being found and they are going to court. The proposed data retention laws will increase that likelihood.
In the area of spin, the media finds it very hard to gain access to and report upon asylum seekers and detainees – stories that are really an international human rights issue of legitimate public interest.
Australia has at least purported to be some sort of exemplar to the region of media freedom, transparency and good governance. It has spent millions on aid projects designed to enhance such values internationally. But sadly Australia is moving towards a “state of secrecy” with no constitutional brake on censorship.
A perfect storm of factors has contributed to this including the rise of spin (we now have more PR practitioners than journalists), the demise of traditional media and its budgets to defend and lobby for media freedom, and the political capital available to parties of all political persuasions in getting tough on terrorism and immigration.
We can quite rightly celebrate free expression with the release of Peter Greste after more than a year of imprisonment for simply doing his job as a journalist.
But my great fear is that fragile freedom is seriously under threat in the very country he calls home.