Australia’s three largest media organizations yesterday joined forces to demand law reforms that would prevent journalists from risking prison for doing their job, in reaction to police raids hunting government documents.
News Corp Australia, Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) and Nine Entertainment released their demands for law reforms following unprecedented police raids on consecutive days earlier this month at ABC’s Sydney headquarters and a News Corp reporter’s Canberra home in search of leaked government documents.
The rival organizations want journalists to be exempt from national security laws passed since 2012 that “would put them in jail for doing their jobs.”
They also want a right to contest warrants such as those executed in Sydney and Canberra.
Both ABC and New Corp this week lodged court challenges to both those warrants in a bid to have documents returned.
The organizations have called for greater legal protections for public-sector whistle-blowers, as well as reforms to freedom of information and defamation laws.
ABC managing director David Anderson, News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller and Nine chief executive Hugh Marks addressed the National Press Club as part of a campaign to gain public support for reform.
“Clearly, we are at a crossroads. We can be a society that is secret and afraid to confront sometimes uncomfortable truths or we can protect those who courageously promote transparency, stand up to intimidation and shed light on those truths to the benefit of all citizens,” Anderson said.
Miller described the police raids that have united media organizations in their demand for change as “intimidation, not investigation.”
“But there is a deeper problem — the culture of secrecy,” Miller said. “Too many people who frame policy, write laws, control information and conduct court hearings have stopped believing that the public’s right to know comes first.”
Marks said “bad legislation on several fronts and probably overzealous officials ... in the judiciary, in the bureaucracy and our security services, have steadily eroded the freedoms under which we, the media, can operate.”
“Put simply, it’s more risky, it’s more expensive to do journalism that makes a real difference in this country than it ever has been before,” Marks said.
The demands come a week before parliament resumes for the first time since the government was elected for a third term on May 18.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not criticized the police raids, but has said he is open to suggestions for improvements to laws.
Denis Muller of the Melbourne University Center for Advancing Journalism said the three organizations had identified “real flaws” in the laws and their united front would put pressure on the government.
“If they do remain unified and committed to this, then they will have an effect on the government because we have seen in plenty of other cases that where the media organizations want to get their own way, the government gives it to them,” Muller said. “The government is going to be kicking and screaming every inch of the way with this because they will be getting very severe pushback from the bureaucracy, from the federal police, from the intelligence services.”
Former army lawyer David McBride is to appear in a Canberra court today on charges relating to the leaking of classified documents about Australian Special Air Service involvement in Afghanistan to ABC journalists. The leak was related to the police raid on ABC.
The ABC in 2017 reported on growing unease in the Australian Defense Force leadership about the culture of special forces, and that Australian troops had killed unarmed men and children.
McBride told reporters two weeks ago that his prosecution was not about protecting national security, but concealing “a national shame.”
The police raid on the home of Annika Smethurst, the political editor of Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, focused on a story published last year detailing an alleged government proposal to spy on Australian citizens, which cannot be done legally.
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