The case for press freedom


Liberal MP Tim Wilson (L) listens to the statements of ABC News Director Gaven Morris and Managing Director David Anderson (R).

“Democracy is an imperfect institution.”

These words from ABC News Director Gaven Morris, encapsulate the complexity of the August 13 public hearing into the impact of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press.

Conducted in Sydney by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, it lasted for over eight hours and traversed topics ranging from the legalities affecting journalism – to defining the practice itself.

Chaired by Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, the committee comprised 11 politicians including Senators Kristina Keneally, Senator Jenny McAllister and Labor MP Mark Dreyfus.

It was one of several hearings being held around the country as the result of the Australian Federal Police raids in June on the home of a News Corp journalist and on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters.

RELATED STORY: AFP Raids – “Journalism is not a crime.”

Those outlets are still under scrutiny for their reporting on defence-related matters but were among the news leaders, media freedom advocates and journalism educators invited to address the inquiry.

All were united in their concerns and support the suggestion by some that Australia is becoming one of the most secretive democracies in the world.

Also addressing the inquiry was the Centre for Media Transition, which is based at UTS.

Representative and media lawyer Richard Coleman, spoke about the evolving nature of journalism.

“Facts, research and trust are God-like words in journalism,” he said. “But doing journalism is becoming harder and more complex.”

Chris Flynn from the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, described the way social media had altered journalism and damaged trust.

“Social media has allowed anyone to confirm what the facts are,” he said.

“It’s created a pool of information that makes it difficult to identify what is accurate and what is ‘fake news’.”

Witnesses also emphasised how law enforcement and intelligence powers have impacted the relationships between journalists and whistle-blowers.

Peter Greste was famously jailed in Egypt for his political reporting and knows more than anyone, the consequences of government interference in the media.

Also appearing for the AJF, Mr Greste specifically described the dangers in the inability of a journalist to offer protection to their source(s).

“One of the most dangerous things about journalists [is they] are seen as proxies for protection,” he said.

“They reveal things that authorities may not want, [which may then] disrupt the relationship between journalists and the source.”

Gaven Morris agrees.

“We have always been able to say to our sources ‘if you give us information we can and will absolutely protect your identity and wellbeing’. We can’t say that now.

“With more fear around the consequences, fewer will come forward. That is the chilling effect.

“I don’t think this is healthy for our democracy.”

(Image/Alexandra Menzies)
JERAA’s Dr Alex Wake and Andrew Dodd appear before the Parliamentary Joint Committee in Sydney.

President of the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia Dr Alex Wake, said it was important for educators to have a voice at the inquiry.

Dr Wake appeared with the Director of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, Andrew Dodd to ensure there are protections in place for both journalism students and journalism academics.

The inquiry also heard more details about the June raids on the ABC.

Managing Director, David Anderson, described the laws used to carry them out as having been “cherry-picked.”

When asked about the risk journalism poses to national security, he responded: “We’re seeking to ensure that we’re not actually threatening national security. We are operating in the public’s interest.”

Amaani Siddeek explains the inquiry’s key concepts.

Submissions to the inquiry will be received up until this coming Tuesday (August 20).

The committee is expected to report its findings on October 17.

– Alexandra Menzies, Amaani Siddeek and Nicholas Rupolo