Press freedom in Australia weak and getting weaker

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Another global agency has found freedoms in Australia are declining under the current Coalition Government. Alan Austin reports.

POLITICAL ATTACKS on investigative journalism by the Morrison Government pose a significant threat to Australia’s democracy.

That’s according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders – Reporters sans frontières (RSF):

‘In 2019, Australian journalists became more aware than ever of the fragility of press freedom in their country, whose constitutional law contains no press freedom guarantees and recognizes no more than an “implied freedom of political communication”.’

Prime Minister named and shamed

RSF specified the actions by the Morrison Government which prompted the adverse assessment:

‘Federal police raids in June 2019 on the home of a Canberra-based political reporter and the headquarters of the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney were flagrant violations of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and public interest journalism.’

The RSF report rejected the “national security” grounds the Government offered to justify the raids and found they were

'... used to intimidate investigative reporters. They also have to cope with a 2018 defamation law that is one of the harshest of its kind in a liberal democracy, and terrorism laws that make covering terrorism almost impossible.’

The report identified one notable source of press obstruction and one particularly problematic issue:

‘Prime Minister Scott Morrison is also a climate change sceptic and his Government tends to obstruct coverage of environmental issues.’

Ranking outside the world’s top 25

The Paris-based international media watchdog has downgraded Australia’s global ranking two years running. In 2019, ranking slipped from 19th to 21st, falling behind Suriname and Uruguay. This year, Australia fell to lowly 26th, overtaken by Cape Verde, Liechtenstein, Namibia, Latvia and Samoa.

This is the 18th annual report on press freedom from Reporters Without Frontiers. Australia’s first ranking in 2002 was a creditable 12th. It has been up and down since then, but mostly down. The lowest ranking was 50th in 2003 after the Howard Government had engaged in many efforts to obstruct fair and free reporting.

The highest since 2002 was 16th in 2009, after two years of Kevin Rudd’s Government. That was the year Australia topped the world on virtually every measure there is. That was also the year Murdoch’s News Corp accelerated its malicious campaign of false reporting of that Labor Government which continues to this day.

Countries doing well

RSF determines press freedom by combining responses to questionnaires with measurable data on acts of violence and other attacks against journalists. The methodology is explained here.

Leading countries in 2020 are:

  1. Norway
  2. Finland
  3. Denmark
  4. Sweden
  5. Netherlands
  6. Jamaica
  7. Costa Rica
  8. Switzerland
  9. New Zealand
  10. Portugal

This column routinely reports on economic progress across the 36 wealthy, developed members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — the countries which should also be leading the world in social progress. It’s not surprising that of the top 35 countries in the RSF list, 24 are OECD members. Disturbingly, out of 180 countries evaluated, the USA ranks 45th, Japan 66th, Israel 88th, Mexico 143rd and Turkey 154th.

Trump’s hostility toward the press

The RSF report found press freedom in the United States ‘continued to suffer during President Donald Trump’s third year in office’ with arrests, physical assaults, public denigration and the harassment of journalists continuing over the last year.

‘Much of that ire has come from President Trump and his associates in the federal government, who have demonstrated the United States is no longer a champion of press freedom at home or abroad. This dangerous anti-press sentiment has trickled down to local governments, institutions and the American public.’

Julian Assange

RSF claimed that in March 2019, a leaked document revealed the U.S. Government was using a secret database to track journalists and others who border authorities believed should be stopped for questioning when crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

RSF condemned the U.S. Justice Department for charging WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange with 17 counts under the WWI-era Espionage Act last year:

If he is convicted, this would set a dangerous precedent for journalists who publish classified U.S. Government information of public interest moving forward. Under President Trump, the White House has strategically replaced traditional forms of press access with those that limit the ability of journalists to ask questions of the administration.

Media ownership in Australia

RSF claimed that the political attacks on investigative journalism in Australia are enabled by one of the world’s highest levels of media ownership concentration:

Almost all of the privately-owned media are now owned by two media giants, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Nine Entertainment, the heir to a consortium created by the Packer family. This oligarchic media model, in which media outlets focus above all on cost-cutting and profits, constitutes an additional curb on public interest investigative journalism.

RSF sees the situation in Australia as getting worse, not better:

‘The situation became even worse in early 2020 when the Australian Associated Press, the country’s only national news agency, ceased operating after 85 years because it was deemed insufficiently profitable by its two main shareholders, News Corp and Nine Entertainment.’

There is no excuse for Australia ranking outside the top five or top ten on the RSF list. Dr Martin Hirst has chronicled the deficiencies in Australia’s media legislation on IA. William Olson has shown neatly how legislative reform can be achieved. Australia can do much better.

Boycott effective?

News has emerged in recent days that Murdoch’s News Corp is incurring significant financial losses and has been forced to close 60 suburban and regional newspapers.

The corporation will not acknowledge that a consumer boycott may be a factor. This cannot be demonstrated readily either way. But Murdoch’s outlets are closing. This may help pave the way for a more diverse media landscape. 

Alan Austin’s defamation matter is nearly over. You can read the latest update here and help out by contributing to the crowd-funding campaign HEREAlan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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