Fear of terrorism has resulted in an ongoing battle between individual freedom and responsibility and the power of the state as laws have been introduced allowing greater secrecy for government actions and the invasion of the privacy of individuals.
Federal legislation that provides high level secrecy for government in its actions to protect the people of Australia such as anti-terrorism laws should not be a means for government to cover up their own crimes or invade the individuals right to privacy. One of the key ways information comes to light on these issues is through the work of journalists and the free press; take away the ability of the press to publish these stories and you lose an essential part of the Australian people’s ability to hold governments and other powerful individuals and groups to account.
Lack of protection
The recent raids on journalist Anninka Smethurst and the ABC by Australian Federal Police (AFP) highlighted the lack of protection for both whistleblowers and the journalists who bring to light the actions of governments.
They represent a disturbing attempt to intimidate legitimate news journalism that is in the public interest, says the union for Australian journalists, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA).
‘A second day of raids by the Australian Federal Police sets a disturbing pattern of assaults on Australian press freedom. This is nothing short of an attack on the public’s right to know,’ said MEAA Media section president Marcus Strom.
‘Police raiding journalists is becoming normalised and it has to stop.
‘These raids are about intimidating journalists and media organisations because of their truth-telling. They are about more than hunting down whistleblowers that reveal what governments are secretly doing in our name, but also preventing the media from shining a light on the actions of government,’ he said.
‘It is equally clear that the spate of national security laws passed by the Parliament over the past six years have been designed not just to combat terrorism but to persecute and prosecute whistleblowers who seek to expose wrongdoing. These laws seek to muzzle the media and criminalise legitimate journalism. They seek to punish those that tell Australians the truth.
The raid on Ms Smethurst was in response to a story published a year ago. The raid on the ABC came after a story was published nearly two years ago.
‘Suddenly, just days after a federal election, the Federal Police launches this attack on press freedom. It seems that when the truth embarrasses the government, the result is the Federal Police will come knocking at your door,’ Strom said.
The AFP have not ruled out the possibility that the journalists involved in exposing government secrets could be charged for publishing the classified information. The report by Ms Smethurst revealed plans to extend the powers to spy on Australian citizens while the ABC report alleged unlawful killings in Afghanistan by Australian troops.
AFP will be called to account
Labor’s Doug Cameron has called for greater oversight of the police and security agencies and the AFP ‘will be called before a parliamentary committee to explain its decision to launch raids on journalists’ according to The Guardian.
They also reported that, ‘The Liberal MP Craig Kelly, who chairs parliament’s joint committee on law enforcement, said asking the AFP to justify the widely condemned raids would be “the first order of business” once MPs returned to Canberra in July.’
Protecting press freedom
Centre Alliance Senators Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff have responded to the raids saying they will introduce legislation into the Senate to propose an amendment to the Australian Constitution to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press along similar lines to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
‘The Australian Federal Police raids on journalists and media organisations provide a salutary warning that freedom of the press – a pillar of our democracy – cannot be taken for granted, and indeed is under significant threat’, Senator Patrick said.
‘A constitutional amendment along these lines would put a brake on any future government efforts to suppress the freedom of the press or freedom of expression for all Australians. It would also set a clear benchmark against which current laws can be judged.’