Australia Nibbles at the Edges of Press Freedom

With its new security laws, the current government aims to shift the balance between freedom and security.

Australian journalist Peter Greste has been released from a prison in Egypt after 400 days of detention and flown to Cyprus, from where he made his return to Australia. Greste, who was working for Al Jazeera at the time, was sentenced to nine years in December 2013 for aiding the Muslim Brotherhood. Two of his colleagues Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy are still in jail.

Did Greste ever laugh, however drily, when Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry marched in the recent Charlie Hedbo rally alongside other world leaders? Egypt is ranked 159th out of 180 nations for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, something the organization pointed out at the time.

Then again, Australia’s current government is not particularly disposed to press freedom either, despite the odd bit of championing of free speech (usually latterly concerned with repealing parts of the Racial Discrimination Act). The new security laws, aimed at combating terrorism, will have an impact not just on the public – given that their metadata is to be retained for two years by ISPs and can be accessed by a variety of bodies with a simple rubber stamp warrant – but also reporters and whistle blowers.

Last year Tony Abbott said, “The delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some, so that there can be more protection for others.”

However the new National Security Legislation Amendment Bill contains mentions of a “Special Intelligence Operation” or SIO. This is a type of spying operation and operations and actions can fall outside of the law. Agents from Australia’s security agency ASIO who are working on an SIO cannot be prosecuted. Within this there is another section related to leaking and republishing information related to an SIO, even tangentially. There are no strictures to protect journalists here, even the standard public interest, which is what underpins most investigative reporting.

That the information is related to an SIO and therefore cannot be published is not something the journalist could necessarily have known as SIO’s are secret. However, they are subject to the full force of the law, or what now passes for it, regardless. Shield laws, in this case, are not so helpful. A review of the bill, especially the part that relates to whistleblowing, was agreed to by the prime minister in November.

Chris Warren, Federal Secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), wrote in an foreword  to 2014’s press freedom report: “The change in government has also led to a change in the flow of information in Australia, particularly with regard to Operation Sovereign Borders. In recent months the assaults on press freedom have stepped up… The government has turned its attention to public broadcasting, demonstrating an extraordinary degree of government interference in editorial independence.”

Whilst it is hyperbole to conflate these moves with a court’s decision to charge innocent journalists with aiding terrorists and imprison them, these new laws do strip away the freedoms and protections of reporters and the public, making spurious charges simpler to pursue.

Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), TimeThe Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press