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The silent summer

‘A free media is essential to a democratic society. It ensures we know what is happening in our world and enables us to report, review and criticise.’

Christopher Warren, federal secretary of the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA), was speaking just after a two-day conference in Sydney last month. The conference brought together leading journalists from Asia, Europe and Australia to address critical topics related to diminishing press freedoms and freedom of information legislation.

At the time, the Government was edging closer to passing its Anti-Terrorism Bill in parliament, ignoring criticism from many in the media that the sedition section of the Bill was not only unnecessary but could diminish the press freedoms that Australians have long taken for granted.

The conference, Free Media in a Democratic Society, was sponsored jointly by the MEAA and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). It highlighted ‘that journalists everywhere are facing common challenges, from commercialisation of the media to ownership issues and draconian laws’, Mr Warren said.

Some 100 journalists from 21 countries discussed journalism in a time of national security, freedom of expression, media regulation, the laws affecting the media’s role including defamation, contempt and its impacts and the media’s role in the administration of justice. High on the agenda were Australian laws, particularly the sedition section of the new anti-terror legislation that will inhibit the public’s right to know and the ability of journalists to report the news as part of its vital role in the functioning of a democracy.

‘Journalists are conscious of the serious deterioration of press freedoms over the last four to five years,’ Mr Warren said. ‘One disturbing trend in non-democratic countries like China and transitionally democratic countries like Russia is the eroding of press freedoms, and when the IFJ complains, they simply point to countries like the United States and say that they are emulating these democracies.’

As well as his role as head of the union and professional organisation that represents more than 75 per cent of working journalists in Australia, Mr Warren is also president of the IFJ. He believes that society is the key beneficiary of the transparency that a free media encourages. Working tirelessly with colleagues, Mr Warren sought to persuade the Government not to enact the sedition section of the anti-terror legislation. He shook his head in disbelief at the Government’s theory that secrecy was essential for the fight against terrorism.

 ‘We say that journalists are very conscious of the threat of terrorism, and many of them are the first targets in such a situation,’ he said. According to the IFJ, more than 100 journalists and media workers were killed in 2005 while doing their jobs.

The MEAA made a submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Provisions of the Anti-Terrorism (No 2) Bill 2005, calling for the removal of sedition provisions and urging the adoption of professional privilege for journalists. Broadly defined, sedition provisions within the Bill threaten to erode free speech and artistic expression. Any person or organisation could be charged with sedition without, as existing law requires, having urged force or violence.

‘Sedition is an obsolete law that should be dropped,’ argued Mr Warren. ‘History teaches us that when sedition laws are used, they are used to silence writers, journalists and creators. They are tools of censorship, not of public protection, and the real danger is that, in “modernising sedition”, its use will become widespread.’

Leading media law commentator Richard Ackland agreed.

‘History shows that in periods of national crises, such as World War I and II and the Cold War, the Government always has sedition laws on the books, and invariably those laws were not just used for security, but for political purposes to silence opposition,’ he said. As the editor of Justinian and online media law journal Gazette of Law & Journalism, Mr Ackland was on the conference panel discussing diminishing press freedoms in Australia and he pointed out that sedition really translates as ‘covering politicians’ backsides’.

One example Mr Ackland gave was when Prime Minister Billy Hughes used such laws to stop publication of Hansard in Queensland, after the premier of that state criticised Hughes’s view on conscription in a speech in parliament. ‘This had nothing to do with security of a nation, only with protecting his image,’ Mr Ackland said.

Perplexingly, some sections of the media attempted to straddle both sides of the fence on the sedition issue.

‘The media does get into bed with the Government,’ Mr Ackland said, adding that some newspapers who received special briefings from government agencies on the topic then ran frenzied articles about the need for enhanced powers when the Government had the anti-terrorism no. 1 Bill under discussion. ‘It is interesting that the same media that wrote and published these alarming stories are now campaigning for free speech.

Mr Warren said that September 11 in Washington and New York, October 12 in Bali, the war in Iraq and the war on terror had ‘demonstrated both the importance of free media and provided political cover for its curtailment’. He wrote, on 3 December, in his blog on the MEAA website: ‘While we’re still waiting for the details of the amendments to the Anti-Terror Bill agreed by the Liberal and National Parties, we know enough to be disappointed at the result. And we know that, even though a majority of both houses of parliament are opposed to sedition laws, we’re going to get stronger sedition laws which threaten freedom of expression. Many of us welcomed the strong position taken by the Senate committee on sedition laws. We were disappointed that the committee ignored our concerns about the excessive secrecy around detention orders and the power to coerce journalists to reveal confidential sources.’

Mark Day, a journalist who writes for The Australian’s media pages and who spoke at the conference, reported in his column on 1 December that ‘almost 300 submissions were received by the Senate legal and constitutional committee … they were universal in their view that the strengthening of sedition laws as proposed by Mr Ruddock was unnecessary and a threat to free speech’.

Mr Day’s column goes on to report that documentary film-maker Robert Connelly presented evidence to the Senate Committee that sedition laws had been abandoned in countries such as Canada, Ireland, Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa, Taiwan, Britain and the US, and that in passing sedition laws, Australia joined China, Cuba, Hong Kong, Malaysia, North Korea, Singapore, Syria and Zimbabwe.

‘The first prosecution of a journalist under this law will bring the house down on the government—let them use it on journalists and we will see the true nature of their promised and legislation,’ said Mr Day.

‘Woe betide the Government [if it starts] using these laws against journalists, because there will not be a media outlet in the land or around the world that will not take notice … [It] would truly put us in the [same category as] North Korea.’

The vagueness of the anti-terror legislation means that predicting what will happen is impossible.

Mr Ackland said that it would be hard to know the final shape of the new law until it was passed: ‘Clearly sedition is an issue for the media, but the Bill proposed is so vague, wide and discretionary, the fear is that it will cause the media to chill off a story and back away. The net effect will be to persuade them not to take the risk.’

Liz Jackson, former presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch, said: ‘It will be very interesting when a journalist is confronted for the first time with a preventive detention order [given the information that in some instances this will be unwarranted], to see if they will or won’t make the decision to publish.’ The Walkley Award-winning journalist, who will take up a role with Four Corners this year, says she has discussed with colleagues the extent to which ‘one can make the decision on one’s own. You have to weigh the value of putting this information in the public domain, as you could be making a decision that might imperil other people. Not just for yourself and the media organisation for whom you work, but potentially the sources from whom you obtained that information.’

Visiting journalists from Asia also made impassioned pleas for their Australian colleagues to keep fighting the good fight and resist these draconian measures. Among them were Siddharth Varadarajan, deputy editor of the Hindi in India, Steven Gan, founder and publisher of malaysiakini.com, a leading news website in Malaysia, Sunanda Deshapriya, senior journalist and co-founder/spokesperson of Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement, and Michael Yu, former president of the Association of Taiwan Journalists. They all spoke eloquently and passionately about free-media issues.

In the end, the conference feeling was summed up by Greek journalist Nikos Megrelis, a member of the executive committee for the IFJ: ‘Unfortunately, day per day, conservative governments all over the world put forward new restrictions for the press and the democratic institutions.’ He said that both the Bush administration and terrorists sought to restrict press freedoms. ‘Both of them want us to live in an atmosphere of fear; fear of what might happen to us by a suicide bomb attack or by a word that may sound suspicious for encouraging terrorism.’

Alison Aprhys is a freelance journalist and a member of the MEAA. She helped to organise the Free Media in a Democratic Society conference.

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