Australia media demand press freedom law reforms after raids

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Australia’s three largest media organisations joined forces yesterday to demand legal reforms that would prevent journalists from risking imprisonment for doing their jobs.

The demands came after unprecedented raids against media organisations by police searching for leaked documents that some say were deeply embarrassing to the government.

News Corp Australia, Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) and Nine Entertainment made their demands after raids by federal police on consecutive days earlier this month at ABC’s Sydney headquarters and a News Corp reporter’s Canberra home in search of secret government documents.

The rival organisations want journalists to be exempt from national security laws passed since 2012 that “would put them in jail for doing their jobs”.

They also want a right to contest warrants such as those executed in Sydney and Canberra. Both the ABC and New Corp this week lodged court challenges to both those warrants in a bid to have documents returned.

In this June 5, 2019, file image made from video, Australia’s Federal Police enter the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the national public broadcaster, during a raid on their offices in Sydney, Australia. – AP

The organisations have called for greater legal protections for public sector whistleblowers as well as reforms to freedom of information and defamation laws.

ABC Managing Director David Anderson, News Corp Australia Executive Chairman Michael Miller and Nine Chief Executive Hugh Marks addressed the National Press Club yesterday as part of a campaign to gain public support for reform.

“Clearly, we are at a crossroads. We can be a society that is secret and afraid to confront sometimes uncomfortable truths or we can protect those who courageously promote transparency, stand up to intimidation and shed light on those truths to the benefit of all citizens,” Anderson said.

Miller described the police raids that have united media organisations in their demand for change as “intimidation, not investigation”.

“But there is a deeper problem – the culture of secrecy,” Miller said. “Too many people who frame policy, write laws, control information and conduct court hearings have stopped believing that the public’s right to know comes first.”

Marks said “bad legislation on several fronts and probably overzealous officials … in the judiciary, in the bureaucracy and our security services have steadily eroded the freedoms under which we, the media, can operate”.

“Put simply, it’s more risky, it’s more expensive to do journalism that makes a real difference in this country than it ever has been before,” Marks said.

The demands came a week before Parliament resumes for the first time since the conservative government was elected for a third term on May 18.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not criticised the police raids, but has said he is open to suggestions for improvements to Australia’s laws.

Denis Muller, from the Melbourne University Center for Advancing Journalism, said the three organisations had identified “real flaws” in the laws and said their united front would put pressure on the government.

“The government is going to be kicking and screaming every inch of the way with this because they will be getting very severe pushback from the bureaucracy, from the Federal Police, from the intelligence services,” he said.

Australia is the outlier among its Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners the United States (US), Britain, Canada and New Zealand in not having oversight to balance press freedom with national security.