Australia’s Journalists Start the “Rights to Know Coalition”

On October 21, 12 Australian news outlets joined forces in an effort to bring awareness to the government secrecy laws wreaking havoc on the country’s press freedoms.

Australia has a history of creating crude laws to trap and control journalists. Sixty new laws have been reinforced and added to the Australian government over the past twenty years to create limitations for journalists.

The “Rights to Know Coalition” is a result of the tension between the media and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) after June raids were performed on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst at her home and ABC Sydney headquarters. The “Rights to Know Coalition” is fighting to reform laws on freedom of information, the right to contest search warrants, restrict what the government deems secret and further protections for whistleblowers.

This past June, AFP officers raided a variety of journalists’ homes and offices to find a connection to various “leaked” articles. Seven AFP officers spent hours searching Smethurst’s home, mobile phone and computer trying to find a connection between Smethurst and “alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret.”

Smethurst has been considered a high-profile journalist since first exposing government secrets in 2018. Her article contained a “top secret” memo, revealing that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate to monitor Australian citizens.

In the following days, the ABC Sydney was raided due to its 2017 “Afghan fillies” report based on hundreds of pages of leaked secret defense force documents. The documents showcased the allegation of misconduct by the Australian special forces.

In 2018, the government introduced a new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offense law  that carries up to seven years of imprisonment for anyone found guilty of violating the law.

In reaction to the recent raids, lawyers and the media have expressed their fears and claimed that the introduction of the “new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offense” was inappropriate.

Whistleblowers in Australia have taken a multitude of hits in the past years for the stories they have uncovered. Whistleblower Richard Boyles was charged in February 2018 with 66 offenses and faces 161 years in jail for revealing that the Australian Taxation Office can seize funds from bank accounts of taxpayers regardless of their personal circumstances. Boyles’ case could be the first major one testing whistleblower protection laws for federal public servants.

Unfortunately, Boyles is not a unique case. Australia has no current law in its government protecting or explicitly allowing free speech even though the country is considered one of the most stable democratic nations in the world. Reports Without Borders ranked Australia in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index at 21 out of 180, two rankings down from last year, mainly due to the tough defamation laws imposed in 2018.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Australia is in the running to become the world’s ‘defamation capital’ with its strict and various laws limiting speech. The Australian Constitution lacks the real meaning of free speech but, “implied freedom” is listed, demonstrating the country’s weak press freedom protections.

Radio journalist Ben Fordham was targeted after Smethurst’s raid due to his story on six asylum-seeker boats that were intercepted in the Indian Ocean trying to reach Australia. An employee in the Department of Home Affairs explained to Fordham that only a limited number of people knew about the information at hand. The state wanted Fordham to name his source.

The Conversationalist quoted Fordham on the matter: “The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.”

The media has been unable to report on a variety of issues due to the government’s opinion of “lacking public interest.” Attorney-General Christian Porter launched a new order preventing the prosecution of journalists without his approval. However, other members of the council disagree with this goal of increasing protections for journalists. Law Council President Arthur Moses told ABC News that he does not view the Attorney-General’s efforts as long-term solutions. He also spoke to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, stating, “This puts the Attorney-General—a politician—in the position of authorizing prosecutions of journalists who may have written stories critical of his or her government.”

The push for a change in legislation is happening now. Multiple groups such as the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance have drafted an open letter to  Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Parliament. Citizens are able to read the letter and send a copy with their signature to the prime minister and others to show their support.

Advocates are pushing for six main proposals for “necessary and urgent” reform:

  1.     The right to contest search warrants
  2.     Protections for whistleblowers
  3.     Restrictions on secrecy
  4.     Freedom of information reform
  5.     Journalist exemptions
  6.     Defamation law reform

    The inquiry into new laws, conducted by the intelligence and security committee, is examining the impact of national security laws on press freedom. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has issued a directive to the federal police stating they should consider the “importance of a free and open press” and broader public-interest implications before involving media outlets in investigations.

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