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Issue #1678      March 25, 2015

Journalists cannot allow sources to be revealed

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the union and industry advocate for Australia’s journalists, cannot support the Prime Minister’s proposal for government “agencies to obtain a warrant in order to access a journalist’s metadata for the purpose of identifying a source”.

The Prime Minister’s plan still permits an outrageous attack on press freedom and would have a chilling effect on journalism in Australia leading to whistleblowers being fearful that they risk exposure if they seek to reveal instances of wrongdoing, corruption, waste, illegal activity and dishonesty.

MEAA believes the lack of understanding of what is at stake requires the proposed Parliamentary Inquiry into press freedom to go ahead for the concerns of journalists and media organisations to be heard and acknowledged by MPs.

MEAA CEO Paul Murphy said: “What needs to be understood is that no journalist, anywhere, can ever allow the identity of a confidential source to become known – that is a guiding principle of journalism the world over. It is a principle acknowledged by every Australian journalist in clause 3 of MEAA’s Journalist Code of Ethics: ‘Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances’.”

Murphy added: “Accessing metadata to hunt down journalists’ sources, regardless of the procedures used, threatens press freedom and democracy. It means important stories in the public interest can be silenced before they ever become known, and whistleblowers can be persecuted and prosecuted. It means journalists can be jailed for simply doing their job.

“The so-called ‘safeguards’ recommended by the Parliamentary Committee were no safeguards at all because they still allowed government agencies to hunt down journalists’ sources. Similarly, the Prime Minister’s proposal also allows those agencies to trawl through a journalist’s metadata in order to expose a confidential source.

“Putting a hurdle like a warrant in the way will not change the outcome: using a journalists’ metadata to pursue a whistleblower. Why does the government not understand that no journalist can breach their fundamental ethical obligation to never allow the identity of a confidential source to be revealed?”

MEAA has consistently explained this principle of press freedom in every submission to Parliament on the national security laws. MEAA also repeated those concerns when it was visited by representatives from the Prime Minister’s, Attorney-General’s and Communications Minister’s offices and the AFP (Australian Federal Police) Commissioner Andrew Colvin.

During that meeting, the AFP confirmed it has been repeatedly asked to hunt down journalists’ sources by accessing journalists’ metadata and he confirmed that it is doing so. The Data Retention Bill will simply formalise these activities with no regard to the press freedom implications and presumably encourage at least 20 government agencies to go trawling through journalists’ metadata.

Murphy said: “Journalists cannot allow the relationship they have with a confidential source to be breached, under any circumstance – that is their ethical responsibility. If the surveillance continues and is formally adopted in the Data Retention Bill with or without a warrant, then journalists will be forced to use the tools of counter-surveillance such as anonymisation and encryption to protect their sources. It remains our fundamental position that this Bill should not proceed at all and that the press freedom concerns of the previous two tranches of national security laws must be addressed.”

Next article – Report shows privatisation doesn’t work

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