The Greens are eager to introduce press freedom laws and reforms

Following the Federal Court’s recent rejection of the ABC’s appeal into the legalities of last year’s AFP raids on its Sydney offices, the Greens remain the party on the front foot pushing for greater press freedoms and protections for whistleblowers.

And it is Sarah Hanson-Young who is seeking to address and meet those goals, as the media union has joined her in criticising the Federal Court’s ruling.

In raiding the Sydney-based offices of the ABC, the AFP sought and obtained up over 100 computer-based files linked to the network’s investigative work for its “Afghan Files” report critical of the Australian Defence Force’s actions in the Middle East. By dismissing the case, the Court dictated that the AFP had performed their actions within its permitted legal boundaries, above allegations that the raids possessed political motives.

“It’s clear current laws have encroached on journalists’ freedom, not just their ability to write sensitive stories but also to receive information from sensitive sources,” said Hanson-Young in announcing proposed legislation in that area which she and the Greens, under their new leadership of Victorian senator Adam Bandt, plan on introducing at the next Parliamentary sitting.

The Greens’ Media Freedom Act, being a reforms-based piece of proposed legislation, would be built around four key points:

  • to ensure a contested warrants process, where law enforcement would need to apply to a judge to search a media outlet or access a journalist’s metadata;
  • to protect whistleblowers by introducing a public interest defence;
  • to put the onus on prosecutors to disprove public interest, rather than entrusting journalists to prove it; and
  • overall, to enact shield laws to protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources.

The mainstream media is perceived to be participating complicitly with the whims of the Morrison Government, instead of having the “no fear, nor favour” mantra to call them out on any sort of wrongdoing or corruption — for example, that which is normally associated with the type of investigative journalism undertaken in the public interest. Anyone witnessing the current state of journalism in Australia would be calling out for any level of reforms in how its standards and practices are applied and performed.

That current state of media and the approach to how its journalistic practices are applied pique the curiosities as to why mainstream parties aren’t as proactive about pursuing stronger press freedoms and whistleblower protections as the Greens are demonstrating via their legislative intentions.

Perhaps one needs to look no further than the corruptive actions undertaken by the governing Liberal Party in recent months – or years – which have not gone unnoticed by Hanson-Young on behalf of her Parliamentary peers and colleagues in the LNP and Labor, as sufficient motivation on its own to introduce these reforms.

Speaking out against the Federal Court’s ruling against the ABC’s appeal while referring to the present laws as “broken”, Hanson-Young said

We need proper protection for whistleblowers and journalists so the public know what’s really happening in our names and with our taxes. We have a right to know what the Government is up to.

Journalism is not a crime. And speaking up when the Government is engaged in covering up wrongdoing should not make whistleblowers criminals.

If the law won’t protect journalists, then we must have legislated safeguards to guarantee the freedom of the press and whistleblower protections. These protections must be independent of the Government.

Meanwhile, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) – the union under which the employment and working interests of journalists falls – echoed the calls for Parliament to draft new laws to strengthen freedom of the press, especially when it comes to protection for whistleblowers.

MEAA President Marcus Strom said:

It is clear that the motivation behind these raids is to intimidate journalists and media organisations. The raids have a chilling effect on public interest journalism by demonstrating to whistleblowers that if they reveal wrongdoing, corruption or illegal activities in the public interest, they will be hunted down and prosecuted.

If an uneasy and nervous feeling persists between the journalism industry and the Morrison Government in light of these raids, then it’s likely with good reason.

While Labor, given their Parliamentary minority numbers, is effectively powerless to pass any legislative matters that it could even propose, the Liberals are seen as having a working cooperation with bodies such as the AFP — even more so after Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has seen his portfolio expanded widely during Malcolm Turnbull’s reign as Prime Minister and maintained under Scott Morrison, an expansion which includes his overseeing of the AFP within it.

Therefore, the LNP, from a legislative viewpoint, possesses no motivation to seriously pursue laws strengthening press freedom and the protection of whistleblowers, while Hanson-Young’s bill would effectively remove the onus off of the AFP as well as Dutton and anyone under his command as judge, jury and executioner and place it back upon processes that would dictate the reporting of matters in the public interest and relate to community standards.

So does the LNP-AFP alliance aid in spreading fear within journalists’ minds and laptops alike, against saying or writing anything critical of the Morrison Government’s actions and/or policies?

Hanson-Young thinks so, under the guise that the connections between a free press and a properly-functioning democracy are clearly linked.

In just two years, there’s been about 22 pieces of legislation the Federal Government has rammed through the Parliament that increase secrecy in our democracy, under a guise of ‘national security’. 

The truth is, those in power don’t want the public to know what they’re up to and are shutting down transparency and accountability to serve their own interests.

The move to introduce the Media Freedom Act falls in line with the Greens’ recent history of proactive and progressive visions in affirming rights of all Australians, which includes a U.S.-style bill of rights among a list of proposed societal reforms. 

Hanson-Young and her Greens colleagues, in hoping for a successful campaign to get the Media Freedom Act passed, will be fighting against a series of forces, not the least of which is the LNP-AFP relationship and hoping those on all sides of Parliament don’t have a short memory over the recent “Your Right To Know” campaign:

The campaign by the Right To Know coalition and evidence given at the Senate Inquiry has provided many examples of wrongdoing and misconduct that would never have had a spotlight on them without whistleblowers and the protection of journalists’ sources and media freedoms.

William Olson is a freelance journalist and hospitality professional. You can follow William on Twitter @DeadSexyWaiter.

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