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Press freedom is democratically essential, so protections must be enhanced

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Freedom of press has been constantly under attack from the LNP Government in Australia (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Greens have been standing up for freedom of press against the LNP Government, writes William Olson.

FOLLOWING THE AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL POLICE'S high-profile raids on News Corp’s Canberra-based reporter Annika Smethurst’s home and then on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters on consecutive days in June, the floodgates have opened to pleas to protect press freedom in Australia.

Those actions remain in the spotlight due to the societal connections between any nation’s free press and a properly-functioning democracy being presumed as a widely-held notion.

Not just for working journalists, but for the whistle-blowers who occasionally tip them off, too.

Acts of legislation enacted over the last six years of LNP-dominated Governments have eroded press freedom, with its collected effects ranging from cloak-and-dagger secrecy to threats of prison to journalists and whistle-blowers.

Of course, ministers in the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Governments over that time keep pushing the long-held LNP party line of “it’s all about guaranteeing national security” to the general public, a public that has been weaned on a mainstream media diet dominated by the pro-Right-wing tabloid press.  Perhaps it’s little wonder that there’s a perception among progressives that the mainstream media’s alleged relationship with the LNP is one of complicity more than that of cooperation and holding those in power to account for their words and actions.

And the restructuring of cabinet positions and portfolios last year cannot allow journalists acting in the public interest any sighs of relief — especially the one that expanded Peter Dutton’s portfolio to include the command running of elements within the AFP and ASIO added to what he already had under the Home Affairs post. 

Dutton recently said that he’s instructed the AFP to take better duty of care to give press freedom the benefit of the doubt. However, even the most optimistic of journalists are tempted to take those words with a grain of salt, given those demands came under the guise of a Parliamentary Inquiry linking the raids to press freedom, as well as Australia’s poor record on human rights under the portfolios which Dutton has run now and in the past.

Democracy and human rights — two essential freedoms which anyone in Australia is presumed to enjoy, but often taken for granted. When one exists as being strong – that being a free press in this context – so are the others, such as democratic freedoms and human rights, by the process of association. 

And whenever journalistic freedoms become weakened, the society witnesses with a subtle hint that democratic freedoms and therefore human rights are becoming slowly weakened.

So what can be done to help correct that delicate balance, the one shaping the public’s genuine right to know – coming from the proper execution of investigative and public affairs forms of journalism – while keeping Australia’s national security needs intact?

The Greens, nominally positioning themselves as the Australian Parliament’s true party in opposition, feel that enacting a Charter of Rights may serve as the way forward, as it applies not just to press freedom but general freedom of speech and human rights in Australia as well.

A Charter of Rights – legislation first proposed by the Greens in 2017 and something which has remained as an integral piece of its platform since then – would be modelled along the lines of a U.S.-style Bill of Rights. Surprisingly to many, Australia does not possess one of these along its Constitutionally-constructed freedoms. Moreover, freedoms such as the freedom of speech and freedom of the press are more implied and tested through the court systems, rather than inherently guaranteed.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale said when the bill was initially introduced

“So many of our freedoms have been hard won, and others are still being fought for. We need to put them into law so that they are not so easily wound back.”

However, Di Natale had been referring to a broader range of rights, such as those referring to the digital and social networking communities, economics, the environment, as well as conventional civil and legal rights.

But it appears that the Charter of Rights, as fought for by the Greens, has gained a renaissance in light of the debate over press freedom in Australia.

Common sense arguments also abound regarding the need for the Greens’ Charter of Rights, or any documentation which aids in defining the bounds of free speech in Australia. 

Gillian Triggs, former head of the Australian Human Rights Commission and current Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the United Nations, recently opined in an essay that the ability to separate freedoms from restrictions and to separate those from any ambiguities as well is very sorely needed.

In her guise as an Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne, Triggs wrote:

“But under Australian law, a charter would give greater power to the courts to ensure that common law freedoms were respected.”

But she also argues that such a bill would also permit a checks-and-balances approach to various public and press freedoms offered within a functioning democracy.

Would this mean the expansion of judicial power at the cost of parliamentary sovereignty? Would it be a carbon copy of the U.S. Bill of Rights?

 

Not if we adopt the so-called ‘dialogue model’ of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. Under this model, a Victorian court cannot invalidate a law; it can only declare that a law does not comply with charter rights. It is then up to Parliament to amend the offending law as it sees fit.

But Sarah Hanson-Young, the Federal Greens Senator who handles the Party’s communications portfolio, champions general media reform legislation and will lead a Senate Inquiry into the raids and its consequences for future press freedom.

Hanson-Young said in July, announcing the inquiry due to occur in Federal Parliament by the third sitting day in December:

Press and whistle blower protections have been steadily eroded and the government just wants to sweep this under the carpet.

 

The ability of citizens to speak truth to power must be maintained and that is why whistle blowers must be protected and journalists allowed to do their job.

 

This inquiry will get to the bottom of what has gone on and ensure a future for a free press in Australia.

Whether that includes the Charter of Rights, or leads to reform acts which influence greater press freedom, remains to be seen.

William Olson was a freelance journalist from 1990-2004 and hospitality professional since late 2004. 

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