October 21, 2019
Media outlets across Australia are running blacked-out front pages as part of a campaign calling for reforms to protect public interest journalism in the country. QUINN ROONEY / GETTY IMAGES
By Rick Noack, The Washington Post
Australia’s leading media outlets launched a co-ordinated campaign on Monday to protest restrictions on press freedom, blacking out texts on front pages.
Monday’s show of unity by competing media outlets came amid mounting concerns over what government critics describe as a culture of secrecy, in which national security legislation has been deployed to deliberately target investigative journalism.
In early June, authorities raided the home of News Corp. journalist Annika Smethurst and the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC), the country’s public broadcaster.
The raids appeared to be part of an effort to identify journalists’ sources behind multiple sensitive stories. One of the media investigations had revealed plans to extend Australian authorities’ spying powers. Another series exposed allegedly unlawful killings by Australian forces in Afghanistan. The raids could still result in the prosecution of three journalists.
Australia ranked far above the United States and Britain in the Press Freedom Index this year, published before the raids occurred. But without a constitutional protection for freedom of speech in Australia, top editors have grown increasingly concerned that authorities could abuse expansive national security legislation to suppress uncomfortable revelations or pressure media outlets.
“Australia is at risk of becoming the world’s most secretive democracy,” David Anderson, the managing editor of Australia’s ABC, said in a statement.
Among the media outlets and corporations that support Monday’s press freedom initiative, branded as the “Right to Know Coalition,” are News Corp., ABC, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), the Guardian and Nine.
One of Nine’s newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald, specified that the initiative aimed to protect whistleblowers, restrict government secrecy and expand freedom-of-information laws. The coalition also wants to force the government to exempt journalists from national security prosecutions, to overhaul defamation laws and to provide journalists with a “right to contest search warrants.”
The executive chairman of News Corp Australasia, Michael Miller, wrote in a commentary for the Australian newspaper: “For years, governments, courts and public authorities have been building a great wall to keep much of what they do a secret and using legislation to make it a criminal offence for media to tell you.”
Miller pointed to more than 70 pieces of legislation introduced since Sept. 11, 2001, that he said “have created roadblocks to stop you finding out what’s going on in this country.”
Australia has more national security laws than any other country, legal researcher Rebecca Ananian-Welsh wrote in a commentary in June.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended those laws on Sunday, saying his conservative government believed “in the freedom of the press,” but also “in the rule of law and that no one is above it, including me, or anyone else, any journalist or anyone else.”
Efforts by consecutive Australian governments to expand national security laws have not always been publicly scrutinized to the extent they now are.
In 2014, after Parliament had just approved another round of national security legislation, lawyer Michael Bradley cautioned in an ABC op-ed that despite the “major loss of press freedom” that will result, the laws had been passed “almost without protest, even from the media itself.”
“Pity the country that gives up the freedom of its press as lightly as we are about to do,” Bradley wrote in 2014, predicting a scenario similar to the raids this summer that triggered Monday’s campaign to reverse some of those changes.