Australia must strengthen press freedom laws and promote transparency, survey says | freedom of the press

Laws to protect public interest journalism should be strengthened and a culture of transparency encouraged, a Senate press freedom committee report recommended.

Media companies told the survey that press freedom and the protection of whistleblowers are essential to democracy and must be balanced against issues of national security.

Tabled in parliament on Wednesday, the report contains 17 recommendations, including improving freedom of information laws that often produce documents so redacted they are unnecessary and amending the penal code to reverse journalists’ responsibility to prove that their stories are in the public interest.

Chaired by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the investigation was sparked by the Australian Federal Police search in 2019 of the home of a News Corp reporter looking for information on the publication of classified material, followed by shortly by a search of ABC headquarters for reporting suspected war crimes in Afghanistan.

AFP last year ruled out prosecuting journalist Annika Smethurst or anyone else for her story revealing plans to extend the spying powers of the Australian Signals Branch.

Commonwealth prosecutors have also declined to indict ABC reporter Dan Oakes on “public interest” grounds.

National and international outrage followed the raids, which were seen as an attack on press freedom, and gave assurances that journalists will not be prosecuted without the consent of the attorney general.

“The 17 recommendations in this report show that we need to change some of our laws to make sure we protect Australians’ right to know,” said Hanson-Young.

“Covid-19 has shown that access to accurate and complete information has never been more important. Yet at the same time, we have also witnessed less information available to the public under the guise of Covid and national security.

“Whether it is the government hiding behind national cabinet confidentiality and denying FOI requests, or refusing to answer questions about the vaccine rollout and hotel quarantine, the public’s right to know is being hampered. “

The Senate report follows the publication in August of the report of another investigation triggered by the raids: the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS).

Joint Parliamentary Committee said media companies should be left in the dark before warrants are executed, but a public interest advocate should advocate for press freedom during warrant hearings .

For offenses where national security intrudes on freedom of the press, warrants should be issued by a judge of a superior court of record, addressing concerns that the ABC warrant was issued by a clerk of a court. local.

Constitutional law scholar Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, said the recommendations go further than the PJCIS did last year.

“He says, in more powerful language, that freedom of the press and openness are really important; that government accountability and transparency are really important and that we need to do more to promote these things, ”Ananian-Welsh told Guardian Australia.

“And a lot of that is about strengthening the things that we already have, like making sure the FOI law is working properly and that there is a culture of transparency, which also recognizes that there is a culture of secrecy in government, a culture of secrecy problem.

In a dissenting report, government senators said they could not accept all of the committee’s recommendations because some overlapped with those of PJCIS, some were already underway, and some were contradictory.

In a minority report, the Greens called for a media freedom law to enshrine protections for public interest journalism.

The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance said the recommendations would help curb the growing culture of government secrecy, stop the persecution of whistleblowers and prevent journalists from being prosecuted for simply doing their job.

Meaa’s media chairman Marcus Strom said the report went a long way in reducing the overbreadth of national security laws.

“After nearly two decades of heightened secrecy, culminating in lawsuits against journalists for doing their jobs, these recommendations would restore journalists’ confidence that they can cover national security matters without threat of prosecution,” Strom said.

Strom welcomed the recommendations to change the Asio Law, the Criminal Code Law and the use of coercive powers to prosecute journalists under the Crimes Law.

Senior Human Rights Law Center lawyer Kieran Pender said the public has a right to know what our government is doing on our behalf and that whistleblower protection is vital to our democracy.

“As recommended by the committee, the government should urgently reform the whistleblower law, revise the draconian secrecy law and legislate better protections for journalists,” Pender told Guardian Australia.

“The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions should also review the prosecution of Afghan whistleblower David McBride, as well as the prosecution of Bernard Collaery, Witness K and Richard Boyle. These lawsuits are not in the public interest and should be dropped.

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