Australians' right to know still under threat, inquiry hears, as little changes to protect journalism

Australians' right to know still under threat, inquiry hears, as little changes to protect journalism

A year on from the AFP raiding the home and workplaces of journalists, a Senate Inquiry into Press Freedom says not enough is being done to protect those exposing the truth.

The Press Freedom Inquiry was told “a lot has happened but very little (had) changed” since its public hearings late last year, and an Australian Federal Police proposal to introduce new laws for media organisations failed to address flaws that risked the Australian public being kept in the dark.

The Inquiry’s fourth hearing came after an AFP raid on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst was ruled to be “invalid” by the High Court, and after the ABC lost a challenge against a police raid on its Sydney newsroom in the Federal Court.

While charges against one of its two journalists targeted by the raid had been dismissed, ABC news director Gaven Morris said the ongoing threat of criminal charges against journalist Dan Oakes had continued for three years, was “frankly unacceptable” and brought “untold stress upon him”.

“It’s more than a year since the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC’s headquarters in Ultimo, hunting for Dan’s confidential sources,” he said.

“It’s more than a month since the AFP gave a brief of evidence concerning Dan to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

“Dan’s fate still remains totally uncertain, the spectre of criminal charges still hanging over his head for crime of doing journalism, and revealing information that we believe the public has a right to know.”

Mr Morris said despite the threat of criminal prosecution, the accuracy of Mr Oakes’ reports into alleged crimes by Australian special forces had “not been challenged”.

Under Australia’s Crimes Act, receiving a government document without permission is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.

News Corp corporate affairs, policy, and government relations group executive Campbell Reid said the fact Ms Smethurst also had to endure immense pressure for reporting on a proposal to spy on Australians — an issue clearly in the public interest — was “evidence of a system that is broken”.

Ms Smethurst recently announced she was taking a break from journalism “after a tough 12 months”.

“You don’t go to the High Court unless something has gone wrong, and the Court’s findings in that matter I think raised in absolute capital letters what is wrong with the current system of execution and issuing of warrants to investigate journalists,” he said.

Mr Reid said the incident proved Australia urgently needed contestable search warrants for journalists to avoid invalid raids, and drawn-out legal processes with a potential chilling affect on journalism.

An alternative proposal by the AFP to serve journalists under investigation with “notice to produce” documents would not work, Mr Morris said, as the scheme would be entirely voluntary.

Contestable warrants were one of six legal reforms called for by the Right to Know campaign, launched last year by some of the country’s biggest media firms including the ABC, Seven West Media, Nine, and News Corp.

Five issues remain outstanding, including reforms to Australia’s Freedom of Information laws, greater protections for whistleblowers, and limits on documents that can be marked secret.

Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom director Peter Greste also appeared at the Senate inquiry yesterday, calling for a “comprehensive media freedom act” to enshrine protections in law.

“The state of press freedom in Australia is so grim that over the past two years we’ve slipped eight places on the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom rankings,” he said.

Australia current sits in 26th space, below countries including Samoa, Canada, Germany and New Zealand.