Media unites to rally for press freedom, taking campaign to front pages and airwaves
21st October 2019
The nation’s media companies have redacted their front pages to highlight the constraints on media organisations under strict national security legislation.
- Major newspapers are featuring “censored” front pages to show the impact of government secrecy
- It follows a television campaign launched on Sunday night
- Media organisations want greater protections for journalists and whistleblowers
National mastheads, including The Australian and the Financial Review, ran special covers on Monday morning arguing the media is subject to a regime of intense government secrecy and the threat of criminal charges for journalists doing their job.
The nation’s broadcasters began running campaigns on air during their Sunday prime time line-ups, depicting redacted Freedom of Information requests and arguing the media cannot fulfil its duty in keeping the public informed if its work is being hampered.
The Right To Know coalition, of which the ABC is a member, is behind the campaign, calling for the decriminalisation of public interest journalism, and greater protection for the media and whistleblowers.
It follows the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raiding the Canberra home of News Corp political journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC’s Sydney headquarters earlier this year.
The police investigations were sparked by separate stories published by Smethurst and the ABC’s Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, based on leaked classified information.
“We’ll always believe in the freedom of the press, it’s an important part of our freedoms as a liberal democracy,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Jakarta on Sunday.
“[We] also believe in the rule of law and that no-one is above it, including me, or anyone else, any journalist or anyone else.
“And the rule of law has to be applied evenly and fairly in protection of our broader freedoms and so I don’t think anyone, I would hope, would be looking for a leave pass on those things. I wouldn’t and nor should anyone else.”
The Right To Know coalition’s campaign argues that without a free press, issues such as the serious allegations of misconduct and abuse that led to royal commissions into the banking and aged care sectors would never have been brought to light.
Adding to the media concern were comments on Sunday from Attorney-General Christian Porter, who issued a ministerial directive that any prosecutions of journalists would have to be signed off by him first.
He told the ABC’s Insiders program he could not guarantee Smethurst, Oakes and Clark would not be pursued in the courts.
“I would be seriously disinclined to consent to the prosecution of a journalist where they’ve done no more than pursue public interest journalism,” he said.
“I can’t though give anything more definitive than that, because my role in this process is to assess a brief that may or may not come up and a recommendation that may or may not come from the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions [DPP], and it wouldn’t get to that point until the AFP had concluded their investigation and delivered a brief if they are minded to the DPP for their consideration.”
Media executives asked why they did not raise concerns earlier
On Friday, one of two parliamentary investigations looking in to press freedom heard from the Right To Know coalition.
The inquiry, chaired by Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, was established after concerns were raised about Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee being given the task by the Government to investigate whether laws it had signed off on were hampering the work of the media.
Labor senators asked media executives why they had not used their news outlets to publicise changes to national security legislation at the time they were being debated, rather than railing against the measures only after the AFP raids.
“Those kind of arguments about changes to pieces of legislation are pretty dry material, in terms of the coverage of events and society,” News Corp’s Campbell Reid responded.
“But it’s also, frankly, slightly offensive to think that the process can’t actually be taken seriously if it’s not on the six o’clock news.”
That sentiment was echoed by the ABC’s Director of News Gaven Morris.
“I hope that what we do in this building is think about how laws work and apply them, regardless of whether that’s sensational enough to make the top of the news or the front pages,” he told the committee.
“That’s kind of your job, not our job.”