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Panpa Bulletin : August September 2007
PANPA Bulletin August-September 2007 53 media matters Even those of us who routinely research and write about threats to media freedoms are sometimes astounded at the scale and frequency of those threats. My wake-up call came in June when I flew to Sydney to attend a 'Media and Terrorism Roundtable' hosted by the Australian Government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute. About 20 of us -- journalists, media managers, bureaucrats, researchers and academics -- gathered to discuss a proposal that new guidelines be developed to man- age the media during a terrorism incident. By the end of the meeting, the media delegates were optimistic we had man- aged to hose down what appeared to be yet another attempt to constrain the activities of journalists during an important news event. More alarming was the impression that the authorities had learned little from the US and London terrorist attacks with regard to maintaining telecommunications services and establishing clear channels for media inquiries during and after such an incident. Yet my surprise that day lay not in the terrorism roundtable but in a meeting I was invited to attend that afternoon. I was kindly invited to be a guest at the Australian Press Council's policy develop- ment committee meeting, and that was the real eye-opener. The agenda was replete with examples of attempts to limit free expression across a range of fronts: terrorism gags, contempt of court, exposure of whistleblowers, shield law problems, gagging charities, prisoner interview restrictions, security checks on the press gallery, freedom of information (FOI) exemptions, new surveillance laws, restrictions on sports reporting, and bans on the identification of child witnesses. And that's just the business for one meeting. The group meets every six weeks and the Press Council assured me the size of this agenda was typical. It is worth looking at some of the main items in more detail to appreciate the scale of the assault on free expression. Terrorism gags: The Attorney-General Philip Ruddock was seeking new powers to ban books, films and computer games advocating terrorism. Contempt of court: Two Herald Sun journalists, Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, were awaiting sentencing for refusing to reveal a government source. (They have since been fined $7000 with their convictions recorded.) Exposure of whistleblowers: It was re- vealed in Parliament the Australian Federal Police had centralised its investigation of public service leaks and had spent $2.16 million on such prosecutions over four years. Shield laws: The West Australian Government refused to introduce shield laws until the West Australian news- paper sacked its editor, and there were concerns the federal government's move towards confidentiality protections were inadequate. Gagging charities: Australian Tax Office rulings on the charitable status of organi- sations triggered allegations the Australian Government was using such devices to silence its critics. Prisoner interview restrictions: State laws banned unauthorised interviews between journalists and prisoners, and in one state a government minister was complaining about a breach. Press gallery security checks: It was revealed police background checks were being conducted on all reporters work- ing in the parliamentary press gallery in Canberra but were withdrawn after the journalists protested to the Prime Minister. FOI: The federal government refused an FOI application for details of a $10 billion water plan, the latest in a series of such rejections, and a university stripped its FOI officer of his powers after he released embarrassing documents. Surveillance laws: The Victorian Law Reform Commission's reference on privacy involved potential restrictions on surveil- lance in public places with implications for news gathering. Sports restrictions: A series of legal wrangles over the fair use of sports footage across telecommunications and media groups seemed to have been resolved. Child witness identification ban: A NSW ban on identifying child witnesses or victims -- living or dead -- affected the reporting of a high profile case. (The law has since been amended.) If you browse back over the list it really does read like a media policy document of a repressive third world regime, not that of a democratic country with historical values of press freedom and open justice. The good news is that the media have had some successes on a range of fronts in recent times, partly through the efforts of the Press Council. While each of these developments has had its shortcomings, achievements have included the near-uniform national defamation laws, the limited evidence laws at federal level offering a qualified 'shield law', and the amendments to the child wit- ness identification restrictions in NSW. Press Council submissions have also helped head off challenges to media rights on a range of other fronts, often the result of well meaning policy institutes, law reform commissions, politicians and bu- reaucrats proposing new regulations with unforeseen consequences for journalists. While the Press Council continues fight- ing these bushfires at all these levels, it can only be hoped the new Australia's Right to Know industry coalition manages to change the culture of suppression within the parliaments and the courts. Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and director of the Centre for New Media Research and Education. Media restrictions on the agenda An Australian Press Council policy development meeting highlighted the intensity of the assault on free expression, writes Mark Pearson.