Australia has suffered a decline in press freedom, according to data published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based NGO that promotes media freedom. In its annual World Press Freedom Index, Australia ranked 26th out of 180 countries, a five-spot drop from last year.
The report identified a lack of constitutional protections for press freedom, Federal Police raids on the national broadcaster and a News Corp journalists’ private residence, a defamation law that “is one of the harshest of its kind,” and having among the highest levels of media ownership concentration in the world as the biggest risks. RSF concluded that in 2019, “Australian journalists became more aware than ever of the fragility of press freedom in their country.”
Since the 9/11 attacks, Australia has adopted more than 75 national security laws, more than any other mature liberal democracy in the world. Most of these laws can be divided into those that block access to information, those that criminalize dealing with and publishing certain information, and those that enable authorities to track and monitor journalists.
Perhaps most troublesome is the effect the laws have had on whistleblowers. In 2018, the government introduced a set of laws that make it a jailable offense for government insiders to reveal information deemed classified by the government and broadened the definition of national security to include the country’s economic interests. The laws also criminalize the journalists who publish such information.
Then, perhaps, in an attempt to set an example under the new laws, the government went on to prosecute a former Australian spy (Witness K) and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, in what has become known as “Australia’s most secretive court case.”
Witness K is an Australian secret intelligence officer who in 2008 exposed the Australian government’s bugging of Timor-Leste’s cabinet room in order to obtain the upper hand during sensitive negotiations over the rich oil and gas fields between the two countries. Bernard Collaery, a barrister and former attorney general of the Australian Capital Territory, was Witness K’s lawyer. Collaery also helped Timor-Leste build a case against Australia in the Hague.
Fifteen years later, Witness K and Collaery now face jail time under the new laws. The government is charging both men with conspiracy for violating the Intelligence Services Act, for passing on sensitive national security information – despite the information arguably being more about business interests than national security.
Human Rights Watch has called for the prosecution to be dropped, saying it is likely to have a “chilling effect” on those who witness wrongdoing inside government.
“Australia’s national security laws shouldn’t be used to intimidate the media or those holding the government to account,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government seems intent on sending a message to officials not to share information with journalists.”
The Australian Lawyers Alliance has said the attempts to prosecute Collaery are neither “fair nor just and undermine the value of Australia’s legal profession.” The case against Collaery is still underway in the ACT Supreme Court.
At the same time as the Collaery case, the government has also been prosecuting a whistleblower, David McBride, for leaking classified documents detailing alleged war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
The ABC went on to publish the documents as part of its Afghan Files investigation in 2017. Then, on June 6, 2019, just three days after the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the home of News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst, over a separate story, they raided the ABC’s Sydney headquarters and took troves of documents linked to the Afghan Files and the ABC’s reporting. The ABC challenged the validity of the warrant, but the Federal Court threw it out. For Smethurst, the High Court found that the warrant used by the AFP was invalid, but they were allowed to keep the materials they seized anyway.
The government claims that the leaking and subsequent publishing of the documents by the ABC risked the safety of Australian troops in Afghanistan, but the managing director of the ABC, David Anderson, said no one has been able to demonstrate a direct threat to national security as a result of the stories. To Anderson, the raid was further evidence of the urgent need for explicit protections for public interest journalism and for whistleblowers.
The release of the Reporters Without Borders report came just two days after former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull released his memoir, in which he details how Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp had worked to undermine his government.
He told ABC’s “7.30 report” of a conversation between Murdoch and Seven West Media’s Kerry Stokes: “Rupert says, ‘We’ve got to get rid of Malcolm. He can’t beat Shorten.’ And Stokes says, ‘That’s not right. He is way ahead as preferred PM, and only just behind in the published polls, he’s in a very good position.’ To which Murdoch says, ‘Three years of Labor wouldn’t be so bad.’”
“They wanted to have again a prime minister who they felt they had some control over, they had an ownership of, and to feel that they were in charge,” Turnbull said. “A Liberal Party they could not control is not a Liberal Party they wanted to have.”
“These were people working for a foreign company, controlled by foreign nationals, conspiring to overthrow the prime minister of Australia… You’ve got it from Murdoch’s own admissions.”
Turnbull went on to say that Murdoch had even acknowledged to him that one of his most senior editorial executives, Paul Whittaker, the editor-in-chief of the Australian newspaper, was part of the plan to bring down the government, send it into opposition, and then install someone who would better serve their interests.
This sort of media partisanship is certainly a part of what has led to a five-year decline in trust in the media in Australia. “The decline in trust looks to be driven by the prevalence of fake news and doubt about media outlets’ intentions,” said David Elliott, the Australian Director of Ipsos, which compiles data on public perceptions of media.
Furthermore, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that Australians no longer trust any of the four institutions measured: government, business, media, and NGOs, and that the media is viewed as neither competent nor ethical.
With a majority of Australian media owned by moguls who appear to use such assets solely to their own advantage and with public opinion shifting further against it, the government may be emboldened to further chip away at journalism’s ability to hold people, institutions, and the government to account.