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Panpa Bulletin : July 2007
18 PANPA Bulletin July 2007 news Call for shield laws to protect journalists and whistelblowers By Jack Beverley The conviction of two senior Melbourne political reporters for contempt because they refused to name the source of leaked information has renewed pressure on Australia's Federal Government to provide better protec- tion for journalists and to be less secretive. The reporters, Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, of the Herald Sun, News Limited's top-selling Australian daily, were spared jail terms but ned $7000 for refusing to answer questions in court about the source of a report published in 2004 exposing a government decision to reject a $500 million increase in war veterans' entitlements. In pleading guilty, Harvey and McManus argued that their sources were sacrosanct, but County Court Judge Michael Rozenes said up- holding a professional code of conduct did not make journalists immune to criminal charges. The chairman and chief executive of News Limited, John Hartigan, said the court's decision highlighted the urgent need for law reform to protect journalists and whistleblowers. The creation of shield laws to protect both groups is one of the issues currently being studied as part of a national audit of free speech currently being studied by the newly-formed Right to Know coalition. The media coalition, which includes News Ltd, Fairfax, AAP, the ABC and other organisations, has appointed Irene Moss, the former commissioner of NSW's Independent Commission Against Corruption ICAC), to chair its audit of media freedom. The report should be complete before the end of the year. The collation has said the 500 laws which limit the release of public information are a "very signi cant threat" to free speech. Hartigan said the Melbourne court's decision raised serious doubts about whether the public right to know how it is governed could prevail in the face of growing censorship and secrecy by government. "It is ludicrous that these two exceptional journalists have been enforced to endure a three year legal battle and now have criminal records because they were doing their job," Hartigan said. "We are pleased their ordeal is over, but the real battle for appropriate legal protec- tion for journalists and whistleblowers is only just starting. "It is essential to the way our democracy op- erates that the Federal Attorney General and his state counterparts can agree on shield laws as soon as possible. This will allow courts to make judgments that properly balance the public's right to know how it is governed and whether disclosure of that information is clearly in the public interest." Proper balance was not being achieved under current law and the transparency and accountability of government was not what it should be. "Whistleblowers are being hunted down and prosecuted and journalists who refuse to name their sources in breach of their ethical responsibilities are being dragged to court with them. It's time for a proper public interest test to ensure that people doing the right thing aren't routinely published." The Australian Press Council said the con- viction of the two journalists who had been protecting their sources illustrated the failure of governments to make themselves properly accountable to the electorate. "Through the suppression of information and the rorting of freedom of information law, material directly related to government per- formance is not available through the press." The council challenged the federal and state governments to "come clean" and ensure relevant details are made publicly available. In sentencing Harvey and McManus, Judge Rozenes said journalists were no di erent to other citizens. "Courts in Australia and England have made clear statements to the e ect that journalists are not above the law and may not without penalty expect to be permitted to follow their personal collegiate standards when those standards con ict with the law of the land." * The international journalism watch- dog, Reporters Without Borders, currently ranks Australia at No 35 on its worldwide freedom index. Journalists Gerard McManus (left) and Michael Harvey (right) leaving Melbourne's County Court. Picture: Fairfaxphotos.com
August September 2007