By Andrew L. Urban
Even without the controversial (ill thought out, badly prepared, muddle-headed) press regulation legislation threatened by Comms Minister Senator Stephen Conroy just a few weeks ago in early 2013 (now dead – the legislation not Conroy), Australia’s press freedom is embarrassingly low, according to Reporters Without Borders, which monitors the world’s press freedoms. We are at number 26.
And things don’t seem to be getting better. John F. Kennedy once said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance; while he was speaking during the Cold War and referring to the threat of conflict with the Communist bloc, it is equally valid in the context of press freedom. One of the key roles of the press is to be eternally vigilant of power …
The following statement was issued on May 3, 2013 by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance:
Federal secretary Christopher Warren has today written to all State Attorneys-General urging them to support reform to protect journalists as two high-profile reporters prepare to face the WA Supreme Court next week under pressure to divulge information gleaned from confidential sources.
Warren said uniform shield laws, genuine protection for whistle-blowers and a national approach to freedom of information laws were among recommendations in the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance annual report into press freedom in Australia (full text at www.pressfreedom.org.au )
The report Power, Protection & Principles: The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2013, was released tonight to coincide with the Australian Press Freedom Media Dinner in Sydney, marking the 20th anniversary of UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, May 3.
Australia is presently ranked 26th on the Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index – behind New Zealand (8th), Sweden (10th) and Canada (20th).
Warren said the 2013 report showed much needed to be done to protect press freedom in Australia.
“To do nothing means Australia will slide further on the press freedom index,” he said. “If that happens, it will take a mighty effort to turn the slide around.
“So far in 2013, at least seven Media Alliance members have been called on to reveal their confidential sources. The court actions have, for the most part, been launched by wealthy and powerful Australians showing a disregard to journalists’ ethical responsibilities.
“The actions have also highlighted the lack of uniformity in the shield laws design to protect journalists and their confidential sources and many legal jurisdictions seek to impose limits to the concept of journalist privilege.”
On May 7, Supreme Court action resumes in Perth against journalists Steve Pennells and Adele Ferguson after Gina Rinehart demanded they divulge confidential information gleaned from their sources for recent stories about the Rinehart family.
As Media Alliance members bound by its Journalist Code of Ethics, neither can reveal their confidential sources nor hand over the information they received from those sources.
“The shield laws that have been drafted federally and in most states should have stopped this nonsense,” Warren said.
“Instead, we have seen an unprecedented number of journalists being targeted, and if they maintain their ethical obligations they could face a criminal conviction, plus a jail term or fine.”
The 2013 press freedom report also calls for laws to protect whistle-blowers who turn to the media to expose corruption and wrongdoing and criticises comments made by public servants about their reluctance to process freedom of information applications.
The report also highlights the outrageous use of suppression orders by courts, particularly in Victoria, which has issued on average 300 orders a year since 2008 and has become the suppression order capital of Australia. One Victorian court shrouded a case under a suppression order for 999 months until the year 2096.
The 2013 press freedom report has also called on the US government to issue an unequivocal statement that it will not seek to extradite or punish Media Alliance member Julian Assange or place any other impediment on his work.
The Media Alliance says it is also vital the Australian Government corrects past statements that suggested Assange had broken the law.
“Press freedom is not a variable,” Warren said.
“It does not alter when you cross from one legal jurisdiction to another. But the politicians who draft the laws and the courts who administer justice are playing a not insignificant role in attacking the press and denying the public’s right to know.
“It’s time for a serious wake-up call before these attacks become entrenched – because if that happens, our democracy is the loser.”