Media freedom – a serious challenge for the new government

The chair of the ABC Alumni organisation, former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes, has outlined a list of demands on media freedom in an open letter to the new Attorney-General, Victorian MP Mark Dreyfus.

He opens the letter by congratulating the Attorney-General for his recent decision to drop an action against former ACT Attorney-General Bernard Collaery.

Collaery is the lawyer for ‘Witness K’, a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer who disclosed intelligence information about a 2004 spying operation by Australia in East Timor.

Your decision gives us reason to hope that this government may take other steps to reverse the trend of the past decade that has led to Australia becoming more secretive, and less accountable, than almost every other comparable democracy in the world
—Jonathan Holmes

Citing the recent Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Holmes points out that Australia has slipped from 19th to 39th on the list over the past four years.

Australia is now positioned on the list below many developing world countries.

READ THE FULL PRESS FREEDOM INDEX

READ AN ABC REPORT ABOUT THE INDEX

Written in a style reminiscent of a Media Watch episode, Jonathan Holmes, whose organisation represents former ABC employees, asks Mark Dreyfus to address many issues so as to push Australia back towards the top of the list.

Holmes is calling for:

  • Real protection for public service whistleblowers
  • Ditching several current legal cases against whistleblowers, including the release of Julian Assange
  • Ensure the offence of “theft” does not apply to the leaking of information
  • Review secrecy provisions to allow for public interest journalism
  • Allow media organisations to contest applications for search warrants
  • Allow trial by jury in defamation cases
  • A federal anti-corruption commission

READ THE OPEN LETTER IN FULL

The most important suggestions Holmes makes in relation to media freedom relate to whistleblower protection, government secrecy and reform of Australia’s extraordinarily restrictive defamation laws.

In regard to whistleblowers passing information to journalists, he referred to the recent case of ABC journalist Dan Oakes, who spent several years under the cloud of a possible lengthy stay in gaol as a result of obtaining secret information relating to Australian forces’ behaviour in Afghanistan.

…the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions announced that it was ‘not in the public interest’ to pursue charges against Oakes. But in other circumstances, we’re left to conclude, journalists in receipt of any Commonwealth document from an unauthorised source – whether ‘secret’ or not, and whether they publish it or not – could be charged with receiving stolen property. The maximum sentence is ten years in prison.

He argues for a complete review of secrecy laws:

Perhaps as the new Attorney-General you can put a rocket under your public servants. Let’s see the review of secrecy laws. Let’s have some action on protecting public interest journalism.

And Holmes strongly advocates changes in the administration of defamation laws in Australia, which he says “is arguably an even more formidable obstacle to the media’s attempts to hold the powerful to account than any of the hundreds of secrecy provisions.”

Jonathan Holmes says that, by allowing for either side in a defamation trial to apply for a jury hearing, the entire system would, “at a stroke” be turned into a level playing field.

VISIT THE ABC ALUMNI WEBSITE

The journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), conducts its own annual survey on press freedom.

More than 900 serving and retired journalists were surveyed this year, with slightly more than 95% of respondents saying that press freedom had worsened over the past decade.

READ THE MEAA 2022 PRESS FREEDOM SURVEY

More than 85% of respondents rated the health of media freedom in Australia as poor or very poor.