The journalist union MEAA has released its annual report card on the state of press freedom in Australia. Kicking at the Cornerstone of Democracy is a comprehensive survey of media law and Australian regulation as well as a look at the situation in New Zealand and Asia Pacific. According to MEAA secretary Chris Warren, the title of the report reflects what the union sees as a failure of government to fulfil promises. He says five years after the promises were made the project appears to have stalled.
In regulation, the report reflects the disappointment the MEAA expressed at the Finkelstein Report which it said would stifle media freedom. While the MEAA is in favour of Press Council reform, it disagrees governments should impose self-regulation on the news industry by statute. Warren said Justice Finkelstein’s judgement was clouded by News Corp’s scandals. With one eye on membership numbers, Warren’s take was “Finkelstein talks of a reference to the Productivity Commission in two years time – will this be too late? Journalists are losing their jobs now.”
Secrecy is another major concern. The report says Australia has 500 secrecy provisions in 176 pieces of legislation across the country with 358 criminal offenses which attract a wide range of penalties up to 10 years in prison. This is despite the Australia Law Reform Commission releasing its report Secrecy Laws and Open Government in Australia two years ago. That report called for 61 recommendations of reform, none of which have yet been acted on. The MEAA supports supported the ALRC’s call for secrecy provisions in the Crimes Act to be replaced with a general secrecy offence limited to disclosures that clearly harm the public interest.
Freedom of Information is another serious problem, one that anyone that has tried to access government data will find. The MEAA quotes an international FOI survey that puts Australia 39th out of 85 countries. The Center for Law and Democracy measured indicators such as right of access, scope, requesting procedures, exemptions, appeals, sanctions and promotional measures. Australia’s mediocre performance was put down to a lack of constitutional right of access to information as well as numerous exemptions to FOI.
The MEAA said Shield Laws were getting bogged down in the issue of who was or wasn’t a journalist. The Commonwealth passed legislation in 2010 that protects anyone involved in the publication of news but the NSW legislation of 2011 narrowed it down to those in “the occupation of journalist in connection with the publication of information in a news medium”. Victoria and WA seem set to follow the NSW threshold while journalists are also under pressure from various “star chambers” to reveal sources.
These “star chambers” are extra-judicial bodies that exist in all states to investigate police and public service corruption. While the aims of these investigative authorities may be laudable, they have extraordinary coercive powers including the power to compel witnesses to produce evidence or other “things” to help the investigation. Some can even deny witnesses legal representation. Journalists Linton Besser and Dylan Welch were served subpoenas to produce mobile phones and SIM cards after they wrote articles critical of the NSW Crime Commission. The Commission eventually backed down from the request.
Other issues in the 2012 report include restrictive access to detention centres, the growing menace of spin and the “comment cycle” (which is replacing hard news), the growth in suppression orders, a review into copyright exceptions in the digital environment, the Convergence Review and concentrated media ownership and continued need for the public broadcasters ABC and SBS.