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Issue #1772      April 5, 2017

Press freedom under attack

It says: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

When this t-shirt re-appeared at a Trump rally last November, there were reports that it had been quickly withdrawn from sale. Not so. For just $29 plus shipping it can still be yours via a San Francisco-based online design outlet.

It seems like it’s been open season on journalists for years. More than 3,000 of us have been slain in targeted killings and cross-fire incidents since 1990; 93 killed just last year. Increasingly, impunity reigns so that the killers literally get away with murder.

Indeed, Australian law enforcement agencies have demonstrated they are not prepared to vigorously investigate crimes against our colleagues. Nine Australian journalists have been murdered in the past 42 years and still not a single killer has been brought to justice.

Now it seems it is open season on journalism itself. Scrutinising the powerful, reporting the truth and informing our communities – these are all being mocked and assaulted by those who seek to deceive for their own ends.

Journalism is being criminalised. The act of reporting in the public interest can lead to imprisonment. We know that’s the case in Turkey, in Egypt, in China … add Australia to the list.

Australia’s parliament passed section 35P of the ASIO Act with bipartisan support, allowing for imprisonment for five or 10 years for a journalist reporting on a “special intelligence operation” – but because SIOs are secret, a journalist wouldn’t necessarily know if an operation was an SIO.

Any journalist “recklessly” publishing a legitimate news story could still face lengthy jail time.

After the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and others spoke out, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, Roger Gyles (who later quit his post 14 months into a two-year term), made a modest recommendation since enacted: a defence of prior publication. But there has been no change to the penalties. Any journalist “recklessly” publishing a legitimate news story could still face lengthy jail time.

So being first with breaking news can get you up to 10 years in the slammer. How’s that for a “chilling effect” on journalism?

Now Attorney-General Brandis is considering extending Gyles’ recommendation to Australian Federal Police “controlled operations”. So will journalists face jail for being first to reveal a botched AFP investigation?

Section 79 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act provides jail terms of six months to seven years for “receiving” a leaked official document (“any sketch, plan, photograph, model, cipher, note, document, article or information”). Multiple AFP raids about NBN leaks are not unknown.

Are we now being spied on because of our journalism?

Meanwhile, in February ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis hinted that the first Journalist Information Warrants to be issued under the new metadata retention laws (an odd own goal: disclosure of the existence of a warrant is punishable with two years’ jail). These warrants allow 21 government agencies to trawl through two years’ worth of journalists’ and media organisations’ telecommunications data in order to discover our sources. It’s all done without our knowledge, so we’ll never know how many contacts and news stories have been compromised.

The government still refuses to reveal what goes on at sea under the military veneer of “Operation Sovereign Borders” or what takes places in asylum-seeker detention centres. While health professionals were exempted in October, other “entrusted persons” face two years’ jail for revealing the truth.

Defamation laws continue to be used to harass, intimidate, muzzle and punish journalists and media outlets.

While there are some whistleblower protections available in the public sector through the flawed Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, Fairfax Media’s reports show that private sector whistleblowers are routinely harassed, threatened and punished in revenge for having exposed corporate fraud, illegality, dishonesty and threats to public health and safety. Journalists must stand up to protect our sources, who risk so much in order for the truth to be told. MEAA has made a submission to the parliamentary inquiry.

Defamation laws continue to be used to harass, intimidate, muzzle and punish journalists and media outlets. The uniform defamation regime is used to assuage the hurt feelings of the rich and powerful, who don’t have to prove their reputations have been harmed in order to win massive payouts.

The ongoing failure of lawmakers in Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory to introduce shield laws allows plaintiffs to subpoena a journalist to compel them to cough up the identity of a confidential source. If the journalist maintains their ethical obligation to always protect the source’s identity, they risk a fine, imprisonment or both, plus a criminal conviction for contempt of court.

If the outrageous use of suppression orders is any guide, the courts aren’t of a mind to do the fourth estate any favours. In Victoria, an average of two suppression orders are issued every working day. Fortunately, Victoria is reviewing its Open Courts Act 2013, which has failed miserably to rein in judges who suppress information on spurious grounds for periods of up to five years (MEAA’s submission to the review notes that judges regularly fail to meet the requirements of the Act).

With fake news on everyone’s lips, it’s worth remembering the Pizzagate incident when a man entered a restaurant in Washington DC with an assault rifle because he wanted to “self-investigate” fake news websites’ claims that a paedophile ring was being run from its basement by Bill and Hillary Clinton. The allegation was false. The three shots he fired were real. The gunman later said: “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”

So this is where we are now. The public’s right to know is mocked and blocked. Governments either enable attacks on press freedom or initiate them. Some 259 journalists were imprisoned last year. Our colleagues are killed for doing their job and, in death, are denied justice. Legitimate news organisations are described as purveyors of fake news and enemies of the people. Armed vigilantes “self-investigate” by packing an assault rifle.

Rope. Tree. Journalist.

Mike Dobbie is communications manager for MEAA Media.

Next article – Commission hears stories of abuse

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