By Robert Wood
The attacks on responsible freedom of expression are constant and ongoing. Readers might have seen my earlier piece for The AIMN, ‘The right to free speech is also a responsibility’. That piece outlined the news of a single day when a Channel 9 fundraiser was held for the Liberal Party, when there was a raid on the home of a public servant, and we heard about the proposed changes to 18C. In the week since I wrote that, we have seen more attempts to undermine democratic discourse. And yet again, bad news has come in three. The first thing to be concerned about is the fake news on Channel 7’s Sunrise program, the second is the Nationals decision to push for a science watchdog, and the third are the reports of Australian citizens being detained in Iran after speaking out. Taken together, it means everyday citizens need to be even more concerned about the lengths to which discourse is being policed, both in Australia and for Australians overseas.
On the first matter, Sunrise and Seven News aired false pro-choice chants after Barnaby Joyce had circulated them to begin with. The reports suggested that pro-choice citizens had shouted ‘we will fight, we will win, put the foetus in the bin’ when in fact they had chanted ‘we will fight, we will win, put the bigots in the bin’. Without checking on the veracity of Joyce’s claims, Seven repeated what had been said, causing distress to the pro-choice movement. It is also a type of fake news that circulates on an increasing basis, being lazy, ideological, and partisan. No doubt Seven wanted to keep Nine company after the latter’s misstep a couple of weeks back.
The second issue of a watchdog for disagreeable science comes to light care of George Christensen. Whereas Barnaby has been off the leash when discussing the proposed changes in a state legislature, Christensen has had eyes on the nation as a whole. As Professor Emma Johnston (Dean of Science at UNSW) and Kylie Walker (CEO, Science & Technology Australia) have written, the Nationals have called for:
… an “Office of Science Quality Assurance” to review scientific reports before they are handed to government. It’s important to note there was no call for a review of all reports handed to government, only scientific ones.
It is a focused and singular attack on science, precisely because of the effective consensus around climate change, drought, the Great Barrier Reef. It limits the scientific community by politicising the debate, and it undermines expertise.
The third issue relates to the lack of action for three Australians currently detained in Iran. Perhaps this is the most troubling of the lot, but it connects to the other two in shaping public discourse and is an indication of how far this government has gone to undermine the rights of its citizens. News broke that academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert had being detained in an Iranian prison since last year. Like the sustained and secretive silence on boat arrivals, this is one area that the government has kept quiet. But, the public has a right to know. This government should be looking after its citizens, and, to claim it has been working diplomatic back channels is all the more galling. The news about Moore-Gilbert arrived on the same day as it was revealed two more Australians, Jolie King and Mark Firkin, were being held in the same prison. This goes to show that it is not an isolated incident, and, quite simply, these neighbours of ours should not be allowed to rot on the other side of the world.
Quite simply, this government does not care about its citizens right to responsible freedom of expression. It is supported in this by news outlets like Seven. It cares even less about academic inquiry, and, the consensus on science. That last point seems like rank idiocy, and, even Shane Warne has joined the party of who knows better on climate change. And last, but not least, its does not care what authoritarian regimes do to Australians overseas. That last point might be because they are acting more like them every day. We do not need to go to Iran to witness oppression. It is right here as well, at home, and that truly undermines our democratic way of life indeed.
Dr. Robert Wood is Chair of PEN Perth and Creative Director for the Centre for Stories. He was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in 2017-2018.
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