The last years of conservative prime minister John Howard’s long period in power - brought to an end with his decisive defeat in elections in November - was marked by a growing battle with the press. The media even formed a coalition called Australia’s Right to Know to combat the administration’s lack of transparency. Meanwhile a journalist’s right to protect sources and the confidentiality of communications were once again under threat.
During the legislative election campaign, the Australia’s Right to Know coalition showed that a lot of news and information was not accessible to the press and public and that this right was obstructed by at least 1,500 legal decrees and rulings. One of the leaders of the campaign, John Hartigan, chairman and CEO of News Limited, said that journalists working for his group had been banned from: accessing information in an audit of politicians’ expenses; obtaining a list of restaurants against which public health authorities had taken action; and accessing ranking of hospitals according to the quality of care. A few days after his election, Labor Party leader, Kevin Rudd promised concrete improvements in access to public information.
Lack of rights for journalists to protect sources was demonstrated in June 2007 when two journalists working for the The West Australian in Perth were threatened with prison unless they revealed how they had obtained a confidential report of an anti-corruption commission which the newspaper had used to point the finger at a political figure.
Some articles of the telecommunications and anti-terror laws, adopted by John Howard’s party, threaten the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. Procedures which allow phone-tapping can threaten the independence of the press when it tries to cover cases involving terrorism or organised crime.
Tense relations between the authorities and the press
Some sentences provided for under anti-terror laws are quite simply outrageous. A journalist who might interview a person suspected of terrorism, is at risk of up to five years in jail. Journalists reporting on these cases can be arrested by police, particularly if they publicly reveal the names of suspects. Under the law a journalist does not have the right to refuse to reveal sources in cases of terrorism. Security forces can search media offices for evidence.
Relations between the local authorities and the press, often in a monopoly situation in some states, can sometimes be very tense. The Western Australia state government in May blackmailed the management of The West Australian when the attorney general threatened to withdraw public advertising from the daily, which has a highly critical editorial line towards the local government. He also threatened not to apply the law protecting sources, the shield law, unless the editor was fired. The Western Australian premier personally threatened the editor whom he called “dishonest”, “immature” and a “problem for the state”. The editor of the newspaper rejected the attack. “Every government would prefer to have a compliant media which simply recycles the government’s version of events”, he said. “However that is not how The West Australian or any other credible media organisation operates”.
The country’s highly influential community media sometimes suffer the effects of news events in their country of origin. The editorial staff of the weekly al-Furat, which serves the Iraqi community, received death threats on the editor’s answering machine in January. The caller said he would “massacre” the editor, Hussein Khoshnow, as well as “all the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites in Australia”. The threats came after the paper took a stance in favour of the application of the death penalty to Saddam Hussein. A police investigation got nowhere.
Justice for the five Balibo journalists?
The year saw a Coroner’s Court inquiry into the killing in Balibo, East Timor in October 1975 of five British, New Zealand and Australian journalists which concluded on 16 November that it was a “war crime” committed by the Indonesian army and pointed the finger at former army captain, Yunus Yosfiah, who subsequently became a minister in Indonesia. The inquiry report, based on scores of witness accounts including controversial evidence from a former Australian prime minister, clearly demonstrated that the journalists were killed because they were unwanted witnesses to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. On the day the report was published, Indonesia rejected its conclusions with the official comment: “This court has a very limited jurisdiction and it will not change anything”.