Media organisations need to speak up in support of whistleblowers and press freedom

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Gillian Triggs and Peter Greste (image by Australian Human Rights Commission via Flickr).

If there are to be press freedoms, we must look to and criticise the silencing and prosecution of Western journalists, writes Daniel Safi.

WHY SHOULD WE be surprised about the Australian Federal Police's (AFP) brazen raids when an Australian journalism advocacy organisation like the Alliance For Journalists’ Freedom does not include in its sights a single Western journalist or whistleblower currently being prosecuted or in prison?

The damage organisations like this can do to our democracy cannot be understated.

Good journalism is dangerous by definition. By “good journalism”, we mean, exposing the nefarious works and deeds of the powerful. Of course the role of the whistleblower is central in this, often acting as the journalist’s source of primary information. So whistleblowers constitute a basic component of the journalistic process and a free press.

Hunting down whistleblowers is clearly an attack by proxy on journalism. This is why we have shield laws, or in the U.S. reporter’s privilege, a recognition of the crucial role whistleblowers and sources play in a free press. 

Beware those who try and maintain some hard distinction between the rights of journalists and the rights of whistleblowers.

By suppressing the latter, the real aim is to suppress both.

The only mention in this Alliance for Journalists’ website of a whistleblower detained in the West is in a piece by Peter Greste, declaring, 'Julian Assange is no journalist' (A technicality which one may or may not agree with. Countries like Myanmar and Turkey do not ever truly arbitrarily detain journalists and whistleblowers — they cook up legal nonsense that allows them to).

As former whistleblower and now journalist and writer Jesselyn Radack states:

'[The] war on whistleblowers is also a war on journalists'.

So what is the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom doing, if not advocating for the most prominent whistleblowers and journalists and leakers under attack in the West? Focusing on countries like Myanmar, Turkey, Hungary and the Philippines — the bogeymen of the international community.  

Advocating for the rights of journalists in these countries is an immensely important task, but if you are not also advocating for the local journalists and whistleblowers being imprisoned in our very own countries for speaking truth to power, then serious questions need to be asked of your organisation’s agenda.

Like whistleblower Richard Boyle who exposed unethical practices at our own ATO and is now facing the possibility of 161 years in prison.

Or Daniel Hale in the U.S., who leaked documents on drone warfare and is now facing 50 years in prison.

Or former FBI officer Terry Albury who was charged and imprisoned for forwarding documents to the media detailing FBI powers, among others both known and no doubt unknown.

Alas, if only we had some independent, free press advocacy organisation to do the digging and inform the public about these.

For another thing, and rather absurdly, Google, the tech firm that is, is one of the partners of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom. And Google has been caught up in the activities and work of WikiLeaks.

Journalists used to call this a conflict of interest. This should at least be disclosed in any reporting on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks by this organisation.

Peter Greste’s Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom website contains multiple news pieces covering the plight of imprisoned journalists in Turkey, China, Myanmar, the Philippines, Gambia, Hungary, among others.

There is not a single piece, until now about the AFP raids, covering the numerous persons in jail or awaiting trial in the West for exposing the crimes and unethical conduct of Western agencies.

According to Greste, Julian Assange is not a journalist and his case should not be viewed as a press freedom issue.

For Greste:

'Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet for punters to sort through. It comes with responsibility … Journalism also requires detailed context and analysis to explain why the information is important, and what it all means.'

There is certainly room for debate over what precisely a journalist is. 

But when whistleblowers who are either passing on, or themselves publishing material that exposes matters of public interest, are being imprisoned for this — clearly this is a free press issue. 

To claim otherwise, from someone like Peter Greste, should not be treated merely as well-meaning theory. It sends a clear message to our security and government agencies: that at home this “journalism advocacy” organisation will not sufficient fight against the security establishment.

Admittedly this is not a decisive game changer. But as part of a fraught information ecosystem, this is a boon for those who would seek to control and restrict public access to information.   

The only reason our security agencies and Federal Police do not deal with every troublemaker and critic more aggressively is because of media and therefore democratic and possibly legal blowback.

I am not saying the security agencies are necessarily bad. But force is their currency. And they exist under this de facto checks-and-balances regime so as to maintain pushback against their basic instincts— which is to resort to more forceful measures like surveillance and raids and arrests more readily than democratic norms would allow. 

So when an organisation that calls itself the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom is not only silent on, but attacks whistleblowers that have exposed the crimes of government security agencies, it sends the AFP and other agencies a message: that they have free or freer rein to follow their instincts.  

This organisation and its activities should be observed carefully over the coming period for the clear threat it poses to a free press at home.

Daniel Safi has an honours degree in history and politics and now works as a music teacher.

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