Thursday 23rd of January 2020

treated like common criminals for telling the truth...


There's a dangerous twist in the prosecution of the ABC whistleblower

The AFP is trying to use a law that nobody has ever thought concerned government secrets to criminalise ordinary journalism.

  • Today, 12.00am
  • by Jonathan Holmes

whether the government goofs or not, we need to know...

Published on 25 December 2009. Last modified on 7 October 2015.
Criminal law and processFreedom of informationIndigenousPrivacyRoyal Commissions & public inquiriesSecrecyWhistleblowing

Secrecy laws that impose obligations of confidentiality on individuals handling government information—and the prosecution of public servants for the unauthorised disclosure of such information—can sit uneasily with the Australian Government’s commitment to open and accountable government. Secrecy laws have also drawn sustained criticism on the basis that they unreasonably interfere with the right to freedom of expression.

On 5 August 2008, the Attorney-General of Australia, the Hon Robert McClelland MP, asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an Inquiry into options for ensuring a consistent approach across government to the protection of Commonwealth information, balanced against the need to maintain an open and accountable government by providing appropriate access to information. (See Terms of Reference.) The lack of consistency in secrecy provisions has been identified in a number of prior reviews, leading up to and prompting this Inquiry—including three prior reviews by the ALRC:

The ALRC was also asked to consider the increased need to share information within and between governments and with the private sector.


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pushing turds back up the river of freedom...

It’s been a week for rights and freedoms in politics. Christian Porter, at the Great Synagogue in Sydney, finally unveiled the government’s much anticipated religious discrimination bill – providing his response to an internal campaign from colleagues to enhance religious freedom that will now be superseded by an external campaign from religious, civil society and LGBTQI groups.

On the same day, in another part of the city, heavy hitters from the legal and media worlds, including the new chair of the ABC, Ita Buttrose, caucused to try and advance the cause of press freedom. Now, obviously, Porter has a substantial workload, and any minister would have been hard pressed to front two time-consuming events on the same day, but the attorney general’s presence for one, and his absence from another, seemed to speak volumes about the order of priority for the Morrison government.

The media event was a summit put on by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom – a group put together by the television journalist Peter Greste, who was imprisoned in Egypt while working for al-Jazeera. A number of proposals were chewed over during the day: a new Media Freedom Act, the potential for constitutional change, as well as a wish list of practical measures pushing back on the creeping culture of government secrecy. The more modest wish list of reforms is being championed by media companies in the wake of police raids on the ABC and the home of News Corp political journalist Annika Smethurst.

Asked about the police raids, Buttrose expressed the view the government was fully intent on intimidating whistleblowers, and the strategy was working. She noted the ABC had lost a couple of stories in recent times because potential whistleblowers had balked, concerned about the consequences.

She was also strongly of the view that Australians would rally to the cause of journalists and journalism and media freedom if the profession was prepared to engage with audiences, show them the value of what we do, and explain what was at stake.

Bret Walker, the prominent silk, invited to give the keynote about Australia’s culture of secrecy, offered the necessary corrective to any journalistic hubris, noting at one point: “I honestly don’t think we should get sentimental about a caste of people called journalists.” He contended what distinguished journalists from others was the profession took the risk of being wrong, and carried the risk of being punished by authorities. To soften the blow perhaps, he noted he “saluted” the profession for taking these risks.

In any case, back to Buttrose and the public rushing to journalism’s defence. It would be heartening for me if her instinct was right. Perhaps it is true for her own organisation, the national broadcaster, which does tend to rank more highly than other news properties in public polling about trust.

The latest Guardian Essential polling in June found a majority of people surveyed had at least some trust in SBS TV news (60%) and ABC radio news (57%), while none of the other sources gained above 50%.

More broadly, research would suggest readers and viewers don’t love what they currently consume. A couple of general perceptions. Australians are becoming less interested in news, with 62% of respondents in the latest annual Digital Media Report from the University of Canberra in collaboration with the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford saying they avoid consuming it occasionally, sometimes or often.


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overkill of whistleblowers and journalists is still in the pipeline...


hard news to be replaced by trivia or a patch of lettuce...

News organisations have been slow to respond to the tide of legislation that progressively and surely threatens their ability to report the affairs of state.

Indeed, some media outlets have a history of cheering on the rampant growth of national security laws, as though the mantra of government was more important than their ability to unearth the truth.

There was an eerie sense of a police state when images emerged of the AFP entering the ABC in Sydney and demanding access to the corporation’s files on sensitive news reports. Only days earlier the police had been rifling through the Canberra home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst. It prompted a heightened concern about the cankered state in which the “free press” finds itself.

Calls for a special independent inquiry into how security laws impinge on a free press were headed off by the government to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security. The reporting date is 17 October. The inquiry could well overlap with work under way by the Senate environment and communications references committee looking into “the adequacy of commonwealth laws and frameworks covering the disclosure and reporting of sensitive and classified information”.

The most significant laws that have an adverse impact on journalism and how it functions can be divided into those that block access to information; those that criminalise dealing with and publishing information about the state; and those that enable the state to track and monitor the work of journalists.

What we find is a maze of enactments, dizzying in their complexity and uncertainty. The definition of national security is unsettled, the defences few and in most instances worthless, while the penalties for transgression are severe.

To better understand the enormity of what is at stake it is important to drill into these laws and identify the pitfalls facing a “free press”, which in an ideal world is supposed to be as vital a component of a liberal democracy as parliamentary elections, an independent judiciary and a professional public service.

Stuff that is off limits to the media

Where, in a criminal or civil trial, issues arise relating to national security information, the National Security information (Criminal And Civil Proceedings) Act 2004 asks the courts to go into cloak and dagger mode.

The government can address the court about how it should deal with any national security information before it. This hearing itself must be in camera and, after the parties are heard, the court may make an order to hear the case in closed session and it only need publish its reasons to the parties and the attorney general.

Witnesses can be compelled to silence or excluded from proceedings and evidence suppressed.

Reporting these cases is an impossibility. All offences under the act carry two-year jail terms.

We’re seeing an example of this suppression and secrecy playing out now in the commonwealth’s case against Bernard Collaery, a Canberra lawyer accused of leaking information about the Australian’s government clandestine and illegal bugging of the Timor-Leste ministerial offices.


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