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Issue #1881      August 14, 2019

Rally for Press Freedom

Forrest Place, Perth Western Australia

In the wake of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the offices of the ABC in Ultimo, Sydney, the trade union representing journalists, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) held a rally in Perth on Sunday July 26. Over 80 concerned people attended to hear a number of speakers from across the media spectrum and related fields.

As the crowd was gathering, journalist students from Curtin University and members of the MEAA were handing out copies of an open letter, “Journalism is NOT a Crime”, addressed to Prime Minster Scott Morrison, Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese and Members of the Parliament urging them to, “take prompt action to protect our democracy for all Australians.”

The raids by the AFP on Smethurst and the offices of the ABC follow the introduction of a raft of national security laws and the prosecutions of whistleblowers Richard Boyle, David McBride and witness K demonstrate the public’s right to know is being harmed.

Vicki Laurie, a senior reporter for The Australian newspaper, the MC for the rally, began by saying the laws which are supposed to strengthen national security are being used to stop journalists doing their job. Laurie said that Journalist Information Warrants had been used by the AFP to obtain copies of finger and palm prints of two journalists for nothing other than doing their job.

Geoff Hutchison, a journalist from the ABC, said good journalism was needed to cover sudden shifts in policy and legislation that can often go unreported in some media. It was the duty of media to report on the actions of the powerful and influential as the public had a right to know about the conduct and decisions of those who run our country in both the halls of government and of business.

While media organisations are often rivals the issue of press freedom and legislation to nobble this freedom had united both public and private media organisations. Hutchison quoted former ABC journalist Kerry O’Brien who said, “Press freedom goes to the heart of democracy” – including the protection of whistle blowers who may have been disturbed by what they have seen happen in government and want to be able to let others know – without recrimination.

Hutchison echoed the sentiments of many people in the media when he stated, “Journalists are not above the law – but neither are members of the government. Complacency and indifference by the public are what can undermine our democratic way of life.”

Brett Christian of local newspaper group, Post Newspapers, talked about how fake news which is peddled by people with money, power and influence is used to promote certain world views and restrict others. Christian gave examples of how a group of wealthy people had tried to restrict publication of the harmful effects of thalidomide on unborn children, Australian Blue Asbestos with its mine in Wittenoom, and in the 1970s how US President Richard Nixon’s use of power and money to influence public opinion through the media.

However, in each case a courageous and persistent media is what shone a light on the harmful and evil deeds that were being kept in the darkness.

Greens State Upper House MP, Alison Xamon said that the call to keep people, especially journalists, to account is an increasing chorus by people who decry press freedom, such as Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton, Attorney General Christian Porter and the Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Xamon decried that we are going backwards in regards to press freedom, especially when there were no lives at stake over the issues that are the subject of the AFP warrants on the News Corp journalist and the ABC.

Xamon added that protections for whistle blowers and journalists were woefully inadequate and the legal instruments used against journalists were far too powerful – especially the Journalist Information Warrants which came into existence with far too little scrutiny. “A strong Fourth Estate [media] was needed”, concluded Xamon.

Cameron Myles, the Homepage editor of online news WA Today (part of Seven West Media) said that with the proliferation of online media it showed that anyone can be a reporter but few if any want to be a fact checker.

Myles added to the chorus of the speakers calling for better legislative protections for journalists and whistle blowers as the community needed to know what our elected representatives are up to when they claim to act in our interests. It is the cornerstone of our democracy.

Rikki Hendon, WA state secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association said her union represents state public servants and includes officials responsible for issuing press releases and creating other news content which reports on the activities of ministers and their bureaucracies. Hendon also spoke for those public servants who come across information which shows impropriety or misuse of resources.

Sometimes when public servants try to deal with the issue inhouse because they love their job, those in charge of an agency go after the messenger instead to ensure that others will not be tempted to come forward about impropriety. While Public Interest legislation exists, it is weak and rarely used. “If we don’t have strong whistle blower protection and a strong and free press,” concluded Hendon, “it will make for a weaker democracy.”

Meredith Hammat, Unions WA secretary said her organisation and the union movement sought a workplace free from harassment and intimidation. The union movement needs a free press to hold the government to account when it tries to pass laws and pursue policies that oppress unions and intimidate workers. Governments and the leaders of the corporate world often sought to create a climate of fear and intimidation making it more unlikely that people will dissent and speak out.

The final speaker was Neale Prior, Personal Finance editor for the West Australian newspaper and former police officer in the 1980s when the government of Sir Charles Court introduced a law under the Police Act where three or more people could be charged for illegal assembly – the notorious Section 54B legislation which was later changed after a successful public and media campaign.

Prior lambasted Facebook and Google as “parasitic news organisations” and fascist governments who would rather demonise a few “boat people” and the union movement than go after the real and pressing issues of the day.

The Communist Party of Australia joins those journalists and media organisations calling for a free press, for “Journalism NOT to be a Crime” and stronger protections for whistle blowers to be able to come forward with information and for journalists to be allowed to do their job.

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