The conservative government tried to get the media into battle order to support Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. It was hard for journalists to cover the war in an independent way. This was also the case for Australia’s involvement in the anti-terrorist struggle in Asia and the situation of refugees held in camps.
Throughout 2003, the authorities restricted press coverage of asylum-seeking refugees who were held in camps. Access to the camps was strictly regulated and the immigration ministry did everything possible to discourage journalists from investigating this issue. It was virtually impossible for journalists to visit camps set up in neighbouring countries such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
An Iraqi refugee died for unexplained reasons in the refugee camp in Nauru on 13 March after being sanctioned by the camp authorities for speaking to a TV crew from the programme "Dateline" on the TV channel SBS. An association of Australian journalists awarded immigration minister Philip Ruddock the "Orwell Award for obstructing press freedom" because of his hostility to the press.
The concentration of news media ownership in a few hands is still a issue in Australia. The federal government presented a bill on media ownership for the second time in November. It had been rejected on 27 June by opposition parties - which have a majority in the senate - as a threat to press freedom and diversity. The government wanted to ease restrictions on foreign ownership and relax local news quotas for region TV stations. It also wanted to scrap the ban on press groups owning several news media in the same city.
These measures were partly designed to satisfy Australia’s two big press magnates: Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. Murdoch, who has acquired US citizenship, already owns two thirds of the dailies in Australia’s big cities. Packer controls several TV channels and wanted to buy a big daily newspaper. The level of ownership concentration in Australia continues to be one of the highest in the world.
Harassment and obstruction
The NGO Justice Action appealed to the state of New South Wales’ human rights commission in January 2003 against a ban on distribution within the state’s prisons of the magazine Framed, which is produced by prison inmates. Detainees said the ban, introduced in December 2002, violated their right to information on key matters, including legal issues, and left them without any means of expression. The head of the state’s prison department, Ron Woodham, who had issued the ban, said on 10 February that it was a "state decision" and the commission had no authority to investigate. But the commission rejected his arguments on 30 April and gave him 14 days to respond to the original complaint.
Multicultural affairs minister Gary Hardgrave wrote to Arabic-language community TV stations on 9 January asking them to be balanced in their coverage of the coming war in Iraq and to take account of the communal tension they could cause. Free expression must be exercised with the appropriate responsibility and must not be abused by inciting hate or violence, he said. Lebanese Muslim Association director Keysar Trad accused Hardgrave of censorship and discrimination against community media. Hardgrave responded that the government would not stand for Australian media reflecting foreign propaganda. The New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board - an independent body - intervened with a report criticising the use of pressure against media according to racial criteria. The board had recently condemned growing media use of stereotypes identifying minorities, especially Muslims, with the emerging terrorist violence in South-East Asia.
As a result of the leaking of senate documents to the daily The Age in June 2002, the senate privileges committee issued a report on 6 February proposing a series of penalties including prison terms for journalists who publish classified information. Copies of the report were sent to newspaper editors and journalists accredited to the senate on 3 March. The Press Council reacted sharply in mid-March. Its president called the proposal "hypocrisy" for punishing the "messenger"and not the person responsible for the leak. The proposal had still not been adopted at the end of the year.
In March, the government and armed forces refused to reveal to the news media the location of the Australian troops deployed to the Middle East on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Ian Mc Phedran, a journalist with News Limited, deplored the media’s inability to contact the troops in the field and said he assumed this would not be the case in the event of war. Press coverage of the operations in Iraq was at first limited. The authorities insisted that the military operations were subject to defence secrecy and the press had to accept this. But armed forces spokesman Mike Hannan assured journalists they would not be censored.
Parliament finally passed a bill on the functioning of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) in June, after more than a year of debates, although it was criticised by the Press Council and many news media. It provides for a five-year prison sentence for journalists who fail to present themselves to the ASIO in response to a summons or fail to produce their sources. It also establishes penalties for journalists who fail to pass on information they receive about a terrorist act.
The government filed 68 complaints in July against the public radio and television network Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), accusing it of siding against the United States and its allies in the war in Iraq. ABC rejected all the complaints except two, which were investigated by its legal department. Communication minister Richard Alston accused ABC’s Washington correspondent John Shoveloan of "anti-Americanism" in his reporting about President Bush and the Pentagon. ABC subsequently recognised that Shoveloan had displayed "sarcasm and irony." In August, ABC was again criticised by the government which threatened it with reprisals if it was found to have incited violence.
Communication minister Richard Alston accused a cable TV channel in August of broadcasting programmes sympathetic to the Lebanon-based, militant Islamic group Hezbollah. He said the cultural links maintained through cable television by Muslim communities around the world were no excuse for inciting violence.
The government on 26 August tried to prevent the public television channel from screening footage showing the different stages in the making of an explosive device identical to the one used by Indonesian terrorists in the Bali bombing. The federal authorities put pressure on the channel’s management without going through the Press Council, which is supposed to handle this kind of conflict. Attorney-General Daryl Williams said he was disappointed that the channel ignored the requests of both the federal government and four state governments.
On 14 November, the company operating the satellite TV service TARBS withdrew the Hezbollah-linked channel Al Manar from its selection of pay channels pending the outcome of an enquiry initiated in October by the Australian Broadcasting Authority into allegations that it incited violence and supported terrorism.