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Panpa Bulletin : March 2007
PANPA Bulletin March 2007 17 news Police are making "alarming regular in- cursions" into Australian newsrooms to unearth journalists' sources --- part of an acceleration throughout 2006 into a "state of secrecy" that has seen the country drop from 31st to 35th in the press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. The growing threat to press freedom was highlighted by the chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union's Australian section, Warren Beeby, when he hit out, at the section's annual general meet- ing, at increasing police and government intervention. Beeby considers the police raids to be part of the Federal Government's policy of tracking down and prosecuting any public servant found to have leaked information. "The crackdown is seen not only as an attempt to deter journalists from breaking news out of Canberra but also as a bid to intimidate public servants," he said, "At the same time, federal and state governments employ 'spin doctors' in their hundreds to ensure only approved versions of stories see the light of day and to keep reporters off the scent of adverse or contro- versial stories." Beeby, who is group editorial manager of News Limited and vice-president of PANPA, cited the recent Federal Police move to subpoena a reporter from The Australian in an attempt to identify the source of an official leak. He said the Federal Government's obses- sion with secrecy had been exemplified by Treasurer Peter Costello's series of court bat- tles against The Australian to halt its quest to uncover innocuous details of 'bracket creep' and the administration of the first home buyers' scheme. "The High Court in September last year ruled against the newspaper, effectively giving federal ministers the right to block Freedom of Information requests with impunity 'in the public interest. "It is ironic that 20 years after FoI laws were created that the courts have instead legitimised official secrecy." This was in sharp contrast to the administration of FoI laws in America, where officials faced fines and jail if they obstructed public requests for government information, "In one sense, it is not surprising the courts have moved in this direction, as suppression orders imposed by magistrates and judges and restrictions on media access to court documents contribute to making Australia's legal system, one of the least transparent in the developed world." Beeby also cited some of the reasons which Reporters Without Borders had put forward for Australia's deteriorating press freedom record: • The imminent sentencing of Mel- bourne Herald Sun journalists Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey follow- ing their conviction for contempt of court for refusing to divulge the source of a story; • The chilling effect of bans on reporting contained in recently-legislated federal anti-terrorism slaws; • The federal bans on journalists inter- viewing refugees, including the group of Papuan refugees who recently fled from Irian Jaya and • The High Court's failure to prop up the failing FoI Information laws. "Around this time last year the Federal Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, prom- ised to introduce shield legislation for journalists, and the NSW, Victorian and Australian Law Reform Commissions rec- ommended extension to other states of the existing NSW shield laws," he said. "These give judges discretion on whether or not to compel journalists to divulge their sources. Sadly, all that has happened in the intervening year is that Federal Police have intensified their clampdown on public servants and journalists involved in 'leaks', and Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey, having been found guilty, await their fate." Commonwealth Press Union - Australian Division chairman Warren Beeby (left) with board member Clive Marshall By Jack Beverley Beeby condemns Australia's loss of press freedom Beeby considers the police raids to be part of the Federal Government's policy of tracking down and prosecuting any public servant found to have leaked information.