Australian media fights for citizens’ right to know

This summer, Australia saw unprecedented breaches of press freedom. Australian government officials demanded radio reporter Ben Fordham and his producer divulge the identity of a confidential source who aided their story about asylum seekers. The next day, federal police raided the home of journalist Annika Smethurst after she published an investigation into possible government surveillance of citizens. 

The day after police raided Smethurst’s home, three federal officers spent nine hours inside the Sydney headquarters of ABC News pouring through the Australian public broadcaster’s hard drive to lift or alter information pertinent to ABC News’ investigation into possible war crimes committed by the Australian special forces in Afghanistan. “I felt like I was having surgery but was still conscious,” ABC News executive editor John Lyons wrote shortly after the raid. “It felt like a complete violation of us both as journalists and citizens––and it had nothing to do with national security.” (The officers were enabled by a search warrant and acted within its bounds, though ABC News is now challenging the warrant in court.) After the ABC News raid, Lyons reported that authorities abandoned plans to raid News Corp’s Sydney headquarters following swift public backlash.

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Such affronts to ordinary journalistic practices galvanized the Australian press, which banded together under the Right to Know coalition. On Sunday, dozens of outlets printed identical front pages: a redacted document and a single legible question, asking, “When government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering up?” ABC News released a video reminding viewers that “every story starts with someone. And without their voice, we’ll no longer know the truth.”

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Australian media makes six key demands of Australian governments, including the right to challenge warrants before they’re issued, exemptions from laws that criminalize journalism, protection for whistleblowers, increased access to information, and, as The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor writes, “reform to laws that make Australia the defamation capital of the world.” 

This is the second display of unity among the otherwise bitterly competitive Australian media. Many industry leaders signed an open letter published in major papers this summer directed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and many other politicians, under the headline, “Journalism is not a crime.” The letter reads in part, “A healthy democracy cannot function without its media being free to bring to light uncomfortable truths… Whistleblowers and the journalists who work with them are entitled to protection, not prosecution. Truth-telling is being punished.”

Over the past two decades, Australia has passed at least 60 new secrecy laws, including 22 in the past two years, according to The Guardian. At least two high-profile whistleblowers and their lawyers currently face potential jail time for violating these secrecy laws by revealing government information without authorization, though after a public outcry, the Australian attorney general recently announced he would review public-sector whistleblower protections. (Whistleblowers in the private sector have already gained increased protection.) At the same time, Morrison has defended the raids this summer as “the independent actions of an agency doing its job to protect national security,” reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Tight laws around government secrecy make reporting on issues of terrorism and national security particularly fraught for Australian journalists. In what the New York Times termed “the world’s most secretive democracy,” a lack of explicit protection of freedom of speech in tandem with a host of secrecy laws (including one that allows for up to two years of imprisonment for public officials who share information without authorization) has created a pervasive culture of discretion. And when it comes to the government’s ability to interfere with reporting, Joseph Fernandez, an Australian media-law expert, told the Times, “‘No turf, no terrain is off the books.’”  

As CJR’s Jon Allsop noted in June, Australia ranks highly in Reporters Without Borders’ press-freedom list, where it sits in 21st place––27 spots higher than the United States. In 2018, Reporters Without Borders cited media consolidation as the foremost threat to the Australian press, writing that it’s only been exacerbated under the conservative, anti-regulation Morrison government. If the Ukranian phone-call scandal, catalyzed by a whistleblower and now the subject of an impeachment inquiry, were to happen in Australia, Taylor writes, their laws are such that “the public is unlikely to ever know about it.”  

Below, more on press freedom in Australia:

  • “The war on journalists and whistleblowers”: For the Australian Book Review, Kieran Pender dives into the gradual chipping-away of Australian press freedom. “Because these wounds have been inflicted by a thousand cuts, abetted by weak constitutional protections and courts unwilling or unable to intervene, the impact has not been fully appreciated.” 
  • A cover-up of the cover-up: Due to Australia’s stringent defamation laws, Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators was briefly barred from online sale in Australia after former National Enquirer editor Dylan Howard threatened to sue a host of different groups, the Daily Beast reported. Booktopia, a popular Australian bookseller, and Amazon both acquiesced to Howard’s legal threats, though Amazon has since changed its tune, according to the Australian Financial Review.
  • ICYMI: Last year, CJR’s Mathew Ingram wrote about how strict gag laws in Australia prevented media from covering the sexual-abuse trials of Cardinal George Pell and a former Archbishop of Sydney. Journalists could not report that the church officials were found guilty of sexual abuse of two young boys due to suppression orders. “The Melbourne Herald Sun ran a front page with the word ‘Censored!’ in large type on the day after the conviction was handed down,” wrote Ingram

Other notable stories:

  • Speaking of whistleblowers: Senator Bernie Sanders pledged not to prosecute whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, should he win the presidency, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported. President Barack Obama was notoriously punitive toward whistleblowers, prosecuting eight people accused of leaking to the press. President Donald Trump has already matched the Obama administration, though only five have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, Grim writes. Sanders, however, dodged Grim’s question about reconsidering the five-year sentence of Reality Winner, who leaked material regarding Russian interference in the US election to The Intercept
  • Runa Sandvik, senior director of information security at the New York Times, announced that the paper has eliminated her position. Sandvik said the Times told her, “There is no need for a dedicated focus on newsroom and journalistic security.” She added, “I strongly believe in what I do (and what we did), and to say I’m disappointed would be an understatement.” 
  • Last week, ABC News (the American one) aired a video that purportedly showed attacks in Syria. Hours later, the video was revealed to be footage of a shooting range in Kentucky. Yesterday, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that ABC News received the video from a “fixer,” or a local journalist on the ground. The fixer, according to Stelter, received the video from someone else who claimed to have shot it themselves. Stelter’s sources say the video was vetted, but the original source would not reveal the exact location where they filmed the video, citing security reasons. They decided to run the video anyway, only to retract it soon after––without making an official correction. 
  • Esquire’s Kate Storey chronicled the failure of Bryan Goldberg’s attempt to bring back the much beloved and maligned, and now officially dead, media site Gawker. Storey reports that Goldberg appeared both uninterested in and unable to build a strong media site, leaving several journalists either writing for or interviewing with Gawker in the dust.

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Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR.