Australian Elections 2007: The State of Press Freedom

21 Nov

While economic concerns often dominate election fervour, the state of press freedom is often relegated to becoming a peripheral, if not, non-issue.

In Australia, while Opposition parties have not focused much on the state of declining press freedom or used it as a rallying point for the upcoming elections, academics and the media have put the microscope on the Howard government in the area of curbing freedom of speech. Robert Manne, a veteran commentator and who has a column for The Age, in his foreword for the book, Silencing Dissent by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison, said, “since its election in 1996, the Howard Government and its faithful followers in the parliament and the media have pursued a partly-instinctive and partly-conscious policy of systematically silencing significant political dissent.”

Australia’s Right to Know Coalition (consisting of media corporations such as SBS, Fairfax Media and ABC) have also recently released a report, revealing similar findings – that “many of the mechanisms that are so vital to a well-functioning democracy are beginning to wear thin. Their functioning in many areas is flawed and not well-maintained… our research bears out the coalition’s claims at the launch of your campaign that there are about 500 pieces of legislation which, to one degree or another, contain ‘secrecy’ provisions or restrict the freedom of the media to publish certain information.”

The state of the press freedom in Australia under the Howard Government and post- 911 has suffered a general setback. As early as 2003, Chris Nash of the University of Technology, Sydney, wrote a paper on the media and identified the deficits. “Not good news: Australia’s shrinking media freedoms” by Norman Abjorensen of the Australian National University also pointed out that “a creeping authoritarianism and a pronounced lack of diversity are making their impact felt on Australia’s already fragile media landscape.”

Such criticisms are corroborated by media owners. News Limited CEO, John Hartigan, has criticised “Federal Government restrictions being placed on Freedoms of Information (FOI) rules as a disgrace.” John B Fairfax, in a recent speech at Marcus Oldham College, reproduced in Geelong Advertiser, expressed similar fears over government’s secrecy overriding FOI; and the ability of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources.

The state of the freedom of the media in Australia based on international rankings has also deteriorated in recent years.

Reporters without Borders, an international NGO focusing on press and blogger freedom, rated the nation at 28th out of 169 countries. In 2002, it was placed at 12th place. With regards to Australia, its slip in ranking is due to anti-terrorism laws “being used abusively against the press” such as phone-tapping without judicial supervision or forcing journalists to give information and name sources to police or the courts.

Freedom House, another NGO that aims to promote democracy world-wide, in its press ranking of Australia rated it 39th from 195 countries in 2007, behind countries as Costa Rica, Malta and Taiwan. Besides citing Australia’s anti-terror laws as deficits, it also noted cuts to Australian Broadcasting Corporation funding and changes to media ownership laws as reasons for its ranking.

Culling from the three reports mentioned above (Independent Audit into the State of Free Speech in Australia by Australia’s Right to Know; Not good news: Australia’s shrinking media freedoms, by Norman Abjorensen; and Freedom of the press in Australia by Chris Nash), press freedom in the country has eroded in recent years. They are due to and briefly summarised as:

1. Increased Difficulty in Access to Information due to improper classification of information limiting public awareness. A 2002 Australian National Audit Office report found that “all organisations it audited incorrectly classified files, with over-classification the most common fault.”

Journalists complained being denied access to information such as background information on government decisions due to “centralisation of the source of government information”. Canberra journalists also lamented that under the Howard Government, press conferences are now conducted in the US Presidential style, meaning short duration and no chance for free-ranging questions amongst other concerns.

2. Lack of protection for journalists and their sources or whistleblower” means hurting leaks and reducing possibility of uncovering governmental cover-ups.

The wide-ranging whistle blowing legislations across Australia between the nine jurisdictions—federal, six states and two territories means that the protection afforded differ in nature such as the level and forms of protection; the type and severity of penalties for reprisals. The problem is further compounded by the consistency of how these laws are applied in the public and private sector.

Journalists in Australia are also “inadequately served by shield legislation and the common law in relation to their ability to protect the identity of their sources.” Particularly, the new shield provision in the Commonwealth Evidence Act, which criminalises any unauthorised communication of information.

3. Limits to Freedom of Information Act (FOI) reduces its effectiveness in accessing documents relevant to government accountability. The Australian’s Right to Know report states that “FOI performance is patchy across all governments… In other cases the FOI process involves delay, high cost, and what could be seen to be obstruction, often suggesting attempts to protect politically sensitive information.”

Political interference can be seen by the use of ministerial ‘conclusive certificates’, which is used to prevent information from being disclosed if the minister feels that it could “threaten national security or act against the national interest”. According to Norman Abjorensen’s report, the Howard Government issued 13 certificates between the period of October 1996 and September 2006, an increase in FOI refusals from four per cent in 1996-7 to six per cent in 2004-5.

4. Current Australian anti-terrorism and myriad laws reduce the judicial power to check on the executive as well as restricting the media in its ability to report.

For example, The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) (ASIO) Act 2003 which gave the government’s domestic intelligence agency, ASIO, the power to arrest and detain people for extended periods of time in order to gather information about suspected terrorist activities. Information related to an ASIO warrant cannot be disclosed for a period of 28 days after the warrant has been issued therefore preventing ‘those who have been questioned by ASIO and/or their lawyers from talking to the media’. Disclosing ‘operational information’ is an offence which may lead to a period of five-year imprisonment.

The Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment (Stored Communication) Act allows the government to obtain a warrant to access stored communication ‘threatening the anonymity of sources as well as exposing journalists to prison terms for associating with a terrorist organisation’.

5. The erosion of principle of open justice due to threat of terrorism. Journalists report difficulty in obtaining court documents and information as well as lack of clear guidelines on such access. Rules pertaining to the identification of children in court cases are also non-uniform across jurisdictions. Problems related to suppression orders include difficulty in getting clear information on whether a suppression or pseudonym order has been made and increase in such orders by Courts.

6. Complex and confusing Privacy laws and high price of defamation suits contribute to censorship. The ambiguity of privacy laws has led to claims that information in certain circumstances cannot be disclosed “because of the Privacy Act” (BOTPA), used as a defence to refuse access to information. The new uniform defamation law applied nation-wide is lauded for making it more easier to raise defence against defamation cases as long as there is truth; and that defendants no longer have to prove that there is a component of ‘public interest’. Yet, defamation suits incur huge litigation costs and the potential threat of penalties.

7. Cutting public funding and attacks on community broadcasters, ABC and SBS.

Critics have accused the Howard Government of a sustained campaign against the ABC. It slashed funding towards ABC in 1997 by $55 million or 12 per cent and has not increased it since. SBS, with a mission to address Australian audiences in their full cultural and ethnic diversity, has turned towards advertising as a source of revenue. The influence of advertising resulted in more populist content which contradicted its public service aim. SBS is today made up of a mostly Anglo-Australian board with expertise in the commercial sector, all appointed by the Howard Government.

8. Concentration of Media Ownership resulting in concentration of political power amongst these media owners. Diversity of opinion has been sacrificed as a result of “big media squeezing out the smaller players” ever since the Howard government liberalised the media and deregulated the industry, causing speculations, mergers and mooted acquisitions. Private media companies have also looked towards financial institutions for survival which means cost cutting and income maximisation to deliver ‘shareholder value’. During this process, journalists’ ability to investigate and report is also significantly reduced.

As has been argued earlier, the state of press freedom and outcome of the elections are often and hardly linked or related.

Yet, a free media is essential as the fourth estate to democracy. As such, while it may not be a core electoral issue, NGOs and activists can still work together to pressurise potential candidates, political parties and the elected government to fulfill their promise of taking concrete steps to stop the erosion of press freedom; as well as building more safeguards to protecting the right to free speech, and in extension, the media.

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References

1. Report of the Independent Audit into the State of Free Speech in Australia, 31st October 2007, by Australia’s Right to Know Coalition

2. Silencing Dissent, Foreword by Robert Manne

3. News Ltd boss condemns lack of press freedom, October 20, 2007, ABC

4. FOI laws under threat, Geelong Advertiser, 8 October 2007, John B Fairfax

5. Not good news: Australia’s shrinking media freedoms, September 9, 2007, Norman Abjorensen, Democratic Audit of Australia, Australian National University

6. Freedom of the press in Australia, 19 November 2003, Chris Nash, University of Technology, Sydney

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