On the eve of Australia’s general election, Reporters Without Borders today called on the next prime minister to undertake to adopt a series of measures to improve press freedom. The organisation is seeking:
1. The adoption of a law on the protection of sources: There have been several attempts by judges or government officials in recent months to get journalists to reveal their sources. Two journalists in Perth were threatened with imprisonment in June if they did not say who leaked an anti-corruption commission’s confidential report to them. The leak was the basis for a story in The West Australian naming a politician. Reporters Without Borders stresses that the protection of sources is one of the key pillars of press freedom.
2. The fight against impunity in the Balibo Five case: An inquest has just shed light on every aspect of the murder of five journalists in Balibo, East Timor, in 1975. It is now time for justice to be done. The next government must, as a matter of urgency, do everything possible to ensure that the Australian judicial system is able to try the murderers and those who gave them their orders.
3. Liberalisation of the access to information laws: The Australia’s Right to Know media coalition’s latest report showed that a great deal of information is not available to the media and public. Reporters Without Borders urges the next government to act transparently and not obstruct access to information. Australia’s Right to Know found a total of 1,500 pieces of legislation and court orders restricting access to information.
Reporters Without Borders notes opposition Labour Party leader Kevin Rudd’s promises to reinforce access to information laws and to ensure that the principle of professional privilege applies to journalists. Nonetheless, Labour-governed states Queensland and Victoria have not displayed much respect for the principle of access to information.
The ruling Liberal-National coalition has not given any specific undertakings but attorney general Phillip Ruddock commissioned an enquiry into access of information which is due to publish its findings in December 2008. Reporters Without Borders points out that the government ignored the recommendations of an Australian Law Reform Commission report 11 years ago.
4. Protection of journalists’ work under the Privacy Law: Reporters Without Borders is worried by some of the conclusions of a report by the Australian Law Reform Commission in September recommending increased protection for privacy. Under the commission’s recommendations, citizens could bring complaints against media without first seeking arbitration by the Press Council.
Reporters Without Borders obviously supports the protection of privacy, but it does not think this should not prevent journalists from working and reporting freely about public figures.
5. The revision of certain provisions of the anti-terrorism and interception of telecommunications laws: Some of the articles of these laws threaten the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. The procedures for tapping phones can jeopardise the independence of the media when they are covering terrorism and organised crime, while some of the penalties under the anti-terrorism laws are simply outrageous.
Anyone, including a journalist, who contacts a terrorism suspect can be jailed for five years. Journalists can be arrested for publishing the names of terrorism suspects. Reporters do not have the right to refuse to identify their sources in terrorism cases. And the police have the right to search news media for evidence in such cases.
The Australian Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 also provides for prison sentences for any person inciting others to disobey Australian law. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser described it as rolling back several centuries of progress in human rights.