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Dropped charges heighten calls for media law reform – MEAA

A three-year storyline ordeal for a pair of Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) journalists may be over, but the stigma upon their federal investigations remains, and will do so until some sort of media law reform guaranteeing a freedom of the press occurs, says the Media, Arts, and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA).

ABC journalist Dan Oakes and his producer Sam Clark received the best possible news on Thursday when the Australian Commonwealth’s Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) chose not to prosecute the pair over the network’s 2017 airing of “The Afghan Files” on its “Four Corners” series.

The episode, which alleged war crimes being committed by Australian Special Forces to the extent of killing unarmed Afghan civilians, led to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raiding the ABC’s Sydney headquarters in June of last year, two years after the airing of the documentary which the ABC maintained was aired in the public interest.

In determining that the role of public interest journalism “does not require a prosecution” with the circumstances in the case against Oakes, the AFP came to the concluding action to drop the case.

Clark had his possibility of being charged by the AFP dropped in July.

But with the grey areas existing over the boundaries of public interest journalism and an overall freedom of the press still existing in the aftermath of what Oakes and Clark had to endure, the MEAA maintains that media reform laws in this area must be undertaken.

“It’s disturbing that Australia can operate like a police state by criminalising journalism, raiding journalists in their homes and workplaces, and threatening them with jail for their legitimate journalism that is clearly in the national interest,” Marcus Strom, the MEAA’s national president of its media arm, said in a reaction to the news which benefits the ABC journalists.

The MEAA and the ABC have welcomed the AFP’s decision, but still critique whether the original actions of the AFP should have occurred in the first place, if Australia had a true established set of policies on press freedom.

“That story, reported in July 2017, is true. But because they told the truth the ABC was subjected to a nine-hour raid by the Australian Federal Police in June 2019 – almost two years after the allegations were aired,” said Strom.

“That is a clear indication that Australia’s laws must be reformed.

“These laws allow government agencies to operate in secret. These laws punish journalists and whistleblowers for upholding the public’s right to know and are being used in response to news stories that embarrass governments. They are being used to pursue and punish whistleblowers, and to threaten and muzzle the media,” added Strom.

While federal Attorney-General Christian Porter previously said last year that he’d discourage the prosecution of journalists in the future, by the AFP or any other law enforcement agency in the name of press freedom – something which Peter Dutton, the minister for home affairs, and whose portfolio the AFP falls under, concurs with – the government’s opposition communications ministers have reinforced views that the role of a free press being essential to upholding the values of democracy.

In defence of the likes of Oakes and Clark, they and everyone else in the journalism industry should be able to execute their duties without fear or favour, contends Michelle Rowland, the ALP’s shadow communications minister.

“Labor believes journalists should never face the prospect of being charged, or even jailed, just for doing their jobs,” said Rowland.

“A strong and independent media is vital to holding governments to account and to informing the Australian public,” Rowland added.

Rowland also emphasised that since the release of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) inquiry into freedom of the press in August, a report which unanimously concluded that existing Australian laws do not adequately support press freedom or protect journalists, the Morrison government has yet to act upon its findings.

“The Morrison Government can no longer hide behind these legal proceedings, and must now commit to implementing the bipartisan recommendations in the PJCIS report that would improve press freedom and provide better legal protections for journalists,” Rowland said.

Meanwhile, Andrew Hastie, the chair of the PJCIS, expressed that the body encourages the advent of press freedom legislation in the wake of his body’s report.

“The issues related to law enforcement, intelligence powers and press freedoms are complex, and this inquiry has allowed the Committee to examine a range of matters in great detail,” said Hastie.

“This is an evolving area of law, and the Committee welcomes recent steps taken by Government to bolster the decision-making process when journalists and media organisations are involved in the investigation and prosecution of unauthorised disclosure of information,” Hastie added.

 

Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, chair of the PJCIS. (Photo courtesy of abc.net.au.)

 

Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens’ communications portfolio holder, has gone one step further than Hastie in calling for an actual legislative policy on what defines press freedom, instead of the current de facto policies which are open to broad interpretation.

“This case was designed to have a chilling effect on the media by a secretive government,” said Hanson-Young.

“Mr Oakes’ reporting was always in the public interest and the fact it’s taken so long for the AFP and CDPP to reach this conclusion highlights our laws are broken and need fixing.

“Journalism is not a crime. We need a Media Freedom Act to ensure no journalist is treated like this ever again,” added Hanson-Young.

As Hanson-Young has vowed to introduce the Greens’ Media Freedom Act into the Senate when Parliament sits next week, she has outlined the Act as:

  • Ensuring a contested warrants process, where law enforcement would need to apply to a judge to search a media outlet or access a journalist’s metadata;
  • Protecting whistleblowers by introducing a public interest defence
  • Putting the onus on prosecutors to disprove public interest rather than journalists to prove it
  • and enacting shield laws on an overall basis to protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources

And Strom, with the MEAA’s position, advocates for any sort of legislation on media reform, including the Greens’ Media Freedom Act, for the sense that it would be better than the current situation.

“That undermines our democracy because these [current] laws have a chilling effect on journalism by using jail terms to punish legitimate scrutiny of government,” said Strom.

 

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2 comments

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  1. Andrew Smith

    One could suggest that the clear warning to journalists has been given for those who ask too many questions; backgrounded by job insecurity, coming under pressure to be more political PR (depending upon proprietor) and very authoritarian (so much for ‘comfortable and relaxed’ Oz ‘values’?).

    Will be interesting to see what NewsCorp, 9Fairfax and 7 recommend….. but often easier to let a journalist or columnist go if it upsets the status quo of ‘commissioners’, MPs, PM, various business sectors, advertisers, think tanks etc.

    This mirrors not just the US and/or UK but also illiberal governments (and supporters) elsewhere who constrain news media and have journalists shut down, sacked or worse, killed; while also trying to intimidate the judiciary on (potential law based) decisions against social conservative over reach and/or radical right libertarian ideology…..

  2. LambsFry Simplex.

    I’m suspicious enough to believe that the Media silence on the Assange showtrial was part of a deal to release pressure on Oakes and Clark.

    I see the amnesty did not extend to the unfortunate fellow McBride…hard time killing floor there also with monsters like Porter, Dutton and Murdoch in the shadows.

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