Why we need to defend media freedom - four speeches from the Tasmanian forum

Why we need to defend media freedom - four speeches from the Tasmanian forum

On Sunday, October 27th, whistleblower, Andrew Wilkie, Senator Nick McKim, former Senator and ABC Friends National President, Margaret Reyonlds, and international journalist Peter George joined with ABC Friends Tasmania for a forum highlighting the vital importance of media freedom and the right to know.

Below are notes and excerpts from four of the speeches from the forum.

Read more about the forum here

Andrew Wilkie MP

Andrew Wilkie: Whistleblowers need media prepared to listen to, and brave enough to report their stories. They get some degree of protection by the fact of the story being out there. Photo: Lara van Raay

Andrew Wilkie is the Independent Member for Clark. He has a strong sense of social justice and his flagship issues include gambling reform, animal welfare, climate change, asylum seekers and the need for Australia to have a more independent foreign and security policy. Andrew famously blew the whistle over the fraudulent reasons for Australia joining in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which helps to explain his continuing strong advocacy for media freedom and protecting whistleblowers.

I have been asked to focus on the issue of whistleblowing.

We need to be talking about this at the same time as we are talking about a free and independent media.

The media needs sources. Imagine how diminished our country would be if:

  • a nurse in Bundaberg had not blown the whistle on Dr Patel
  • Wikileaks had not told us about the US helicopter gunning down innocent civilians and journalists in Iraq
  • Witness K had not come forward about the bugging of our negotiations with East Timor;

or if insiders had not revealed the level of misconduct:

  • in the banking sector
  • within the ATO
  • by Australian troops in Afghanistan;

or warned us about the potential spying powers being considered for the Australian Signals Directorate.

My own story goes back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The week before, I resigned from an intelligence agency in Canberra and went to Laurie Oakes, revealing that the official case for war was dishonest.

Whistleblowing in Australia is a hard thing to do. My story of survival and eventual success is close to unique. The normal path is to risk all and lose much, including your job and your friends, being left to pick up the pieces of your life when the media has moved on.  The toll often includes death threats and the suicide rate for whistleblowers is high. There is no up side to it.

It is worth noting though that, at the time I blew the whistle, I face a potential penalty of two years’ imprisonment. Laurie Oakes and his editor faced seven years.

Whistleblowers need media prepared to listen to, and brave enough to report their stories. They get some degree of protection by the fact of the story being out there. The heightened profile can lead to protection from prosecution.

We should embrace and support whistleblowers. We should ensure there is effective legislation wrapped around them.

Senator Nick McKim

Nick McKim: Media/press freedoms are crucial to a well-functioning democracy and are part of the architecture that holds power to account. Photo: Lara van Raay

Nick McKim is an Australian Greens Senator for Tasmania and the party’s spokesperson on Justice and Digital Rights. Nick is one of Parliament’s leading voices against ever-expanding government powers under the cloak of ‘national security’. He recently helped to establish a Senate Inquiry into press freedom and whistleblower protections.

I will focus today on the current Your Right To Know campaign.

Media/press freedoms are crucial to a well-functioning democracy and are part of the architecture that holds power to account. So they need to be not unreasonably fettered. The current situation has a chilling effect on those who seek to provide us with information that should be in the public domain. And it is not just about press freedom; it is also about whistleblowers.

In the past 20 years, over 200 pieces of legislation have been passed at Federal, State and Territory levels that act to take away our rights. And all have been passed with every single vote from every single major party. Here I give a shout out to Andrew Wilkie, one of the very few who, along with the Greens, votes against these erosions of our freedoms.

We need to look at the role of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. It is a closed shop, meeting behind closed doors with representation from the Liberals and Labor only. Everything comes out of there with bipartisan support and then becomes law. This leads to the problem we are here to discuss, erosion of press freedom, but that is not all these laws do.

Think about Bernard Collaery and Witness K. Bernard Collaery is being tried in secret as we meet. The prosecution was signed off by Attorney-General, Christian Porter.  So there is no comfort in the recent assurance that the Attorney-General’s sign-off is needed before journalists will be prosecuted - this will not operate as a safeguard.

We have to note the hypocrisy of some in supporting this campaign and we have to name News Corp. They cheered these laws all the way. They are a part of the problem, but I am glad they are part of the campaign.

We also need to look at the behaviour of the Australian Federal Police (AFP). There were two significant reports based on leaks published in the Australian prior to the raids - the one by Annika Smethurst reporting discussions of new powers for the Australian Signals Directorate, allowing them to spy on Australian citizens for the first time, and one reporting Departmental advice suggesting that the Medivac Bill would effectively dismantle offshore detention, boosting the Government’s position on the Bill.  The AFP investigated one only.

You will be aware of the new metadata law that means our Internet Service Providers are required to keep our data for two years and that it can be accessed without warrant by intelligence agencies.  When this law was first proposed, it included journalists’ metadata. An out clause for journalists was successfully argued. Thus the media’s self-interest was addressed; so they went quiet on the laws after that.

This is a warning for us about potential Government responses to the Right to Know campaign. We need solutions/responses that are about all Australians, not just media self-interest. We need a Charter of Rights.

Peter George

Peter George: As infringements on media freedoms increase, so corruption in the public and private spheres also increases while democratic freedoms diminish. Photo Lara van Raay

Peter George was the ABC’s first Middle East correspondent and an inaugural reporter on ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent. During a career of four decades he reported from 6 continents covering conflicts, natural disasters, political events and social upheavals. Much of Peter’s reporting has been from countries in which freedom of the media does not exist or has been severely restricted but in which courageous individuals – often local reporters working under threat – have helped shine a light on events.

Congratulations to the committee for the timing of this forum – its subject could hardly be more topical in light of the unique collaboration between Australia’s newspapers all of whom redacted their front pages on the same day to protest legislative attacks on press freedoms.

It’s hard to imagine any other moment or topic that could unite Nine newspapers and the Murdoch Press … let alone the ABC.

I confess to being a poor substitute today for Peter Greste who spent 440 days in an Egyptian prison.  My record is one day in the Nuriootpa lock-up at 17 years old for vagrancy while searching for a job in the South Australian vineyards and, many years later as a correspondent, three days in a Syrian jail for attempted bribery.

I also cede the floor to Nick (McKim) and Andrew (Wilkie) when it comes to the domestic focus on legislative restrictions and political and commercial influences that affect the breadth, depth and impact on media freedoms.

My perspective is that of a reporter and, particularly, a foreign correspondent.

To me, the ideal reporter daily reports events as they unfold with as little cultural or political bias as they can muster.  With luck, all sides will accuse you of bias so that you can feel you’re well balanced: Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke’s Labor administrations accused me of being a Liberal Party plant but as an ABC Four Corners reporter I was no doubt seen as a left-wing fellow traveller. 

From day one as a reporter, I saw my calling as similar to that of a medieval town crier: All’s quiet, all is well; the King is Dead; the Vikings are coming; whatever news was important to the villager.  Report the facts as well as you can. 

My experience overseas taught me nothing if not that the ability to report events faithfully to one’s own community lies at the heart of a political system that truly serves its people. 

In many countries it’s a dangerous occupation: as of yesterday, 31 journalists, 6 citizen journalists and 2 media assistants have died this year pursuing the cause of a free-flow of information.  That’s 39 dead in 43 weeks. And lest we forget: Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, died just 12 months ago in Turkey at the hands of his own country’s assassins.

Moreover, there are at least 385 journalists in prison around the world … those that we know of.

This year’s Freedom House annual report is titled: Freedom and the media 2019: A downward spiral.

It begins:

  • Freedom of the media has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade.

  • In some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector.

  • While the threats to global media freedom are real and concerning in their own right, their impact on the state of democracy is what makes them truly dangerous.

I don’t want to be alarmist because in Australia we do remain a strong, open, democratic society.

But we’re not immune from this worldwide trend.

And it comes at a time when Australians’ trust in the political and parliamentary process and in our politicians is slipping (with some notable exceptions).

Moreover, in global rankings, we’re also slipping on two crucial fronts.

On press freedom, Reporters Without Borders now ranks us 21st in the world – down two places in a year.  New Zealand thrashes us as 7th in the world.  We lag behind Surinam, Uruguay and Costa Rica – all in a region hardly known for its democratic values.

This ranking is particularly concerning when we learn we’re also slipping on the Global Corruption Index… back in 1995 we were 7th on the scale … our neighbours, the Kiwis, were at the top!  Today we’re 13th while the Kiwis have slipped a mere one place to second behind Denmark.

These two indices are interconnected.  As infringements on media freedoms increase, so corruption in the public and private spheres also increases while democratic freedoms diminish.

40% of the world’s populist leaders have been indicted on corruption charges while national corruption figures rise and media freedoms diminish.

By contrast to this grim outlook, Australians’ trust in the media remains surprisingly high – particularly in the traditional media as opposed to new media.  More than half the population trusts the traditional media.

More people trust TV and radio than newspapers.  In this at least, we’re a little ahead of the rest of the world.

Where does this lead us?

Well it means our strong suit is that most Australians trust us, the traditional news media.  But there’s no cause for complacency. The figures are declining. Nevertheless, it’s a reputation that needs to be protected and enhanced.

I believe we should be looking to Scandinavia for our lead. 

Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark rank consistently as the least corrupt nations, the nations in which the media is most free and where trust in news outlets is highest.

The reasons seem clear.

For the most part Scandinavian nations have constitutional protections for freedom of speech and of the press.  Sweden’s laws led the way … they originated in 1776.

Furthermore, Scandinavians have human rights specifically protected in their laws and constitutions.  They have broad freedom-of-information laws in which the right to know often trumps the right to official secrecy.  In recent times, they have responded to economic threats to traditional media from the internet with anti-media-concentration laws. 

Even Costa Rica, an exception in Central America, has a free press protected by Constitutional rights along with laws that preserve a citizen’s rights to demand the right of reply.

These nations would find it very hard to justify laws similar to those of Australia: Draconian penalties pursued against whistle-blowers; incredibly tough defamation laws; the impossibility to report freely on terrorism and national security; and news blackouts on events in Nauru and Manus island.

Media freedoms are under assault in Scandinavian countries as elsewhere and they require constant vigilance.  Laws intended to combat terrorism, hate speech or even fake news tend towards over-reach and may be self-serving to the political elite.  But we could do a lot worse than emulate the basic rights they have enshrined in their laws.

Let me leave one last thought behind.

In 40 years of reporting and having lived and worked in more than a hundred countries, I’m left with one clear conviction … a conviction that I suspect may not be controversial in this forum.

It’s that public broadcasting, independent of political interference, is a jewel in the crown of a democracy. 

For all its flaws, its perceived biases, its often-narrow cultural focuses, institutions like the ABC are society’s lynchpins with imperatives that are not driven by commercial or political considerations.

These are shrinking but precious institutions under increasing attack globally and in increasingly in danger of disappearing.

Organisations like the ABC Friends play a truly important role not just in preserving public broadcasting in Australia but in conserving and increasing the public’s right to know.

Margaret Reynolds

Margaret Reynolds: Tasmanians are at the forefront of the Friends’ campaign as Hobart was the birthplace of the fight for press freedom in Australia. Photo: Lara van Raay

Margaret Reynolds is President of both ABC Friends Tasmania and ABC Friends National. Margaret held two ministerial appointments during her time in the Senate, serving as Minister for Local Government from September 1987 to April 1990 and as Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women from January 1988 to April 1990. She retired from federal politics in 1999, and went on to lecture in politics and international relations at the University of Queensland. In 1995, Reynolds published a book titled The Last Bastion: Labor women working towards equality in the parliaments of Australia, which is a compilation of biographical details about ALP women from the Party's inception till the year it was published. A further book, Living Politics, was published by University of Queensland Press in 2007.

I will give you a brief outline of what the Friends have been doing as part of the wider media freedom campaign.

We jumped in quickly after the raids, contacting all of our members and supporters urging them to respond if they wanted to be Defenders of media freedom.  The response from Tasmania was phenomenal and those responses have formed a critical part of our campaign literature and our submission to the Senate Parliamentary Inquiry into Media Freedom.

We then asked each of them to contact their local member.

In July, ABC Friends National worked with the Parliamentary Friends Group Co-Convenors, Andrew Wilkie, Rebekha Sharkie and Mike Freelander, who each contributed to the Inaugural ABC Friends National Defend Media Freedom Lecture at the Parliamentary Theatre in Parliament House.  It was very well attended and the audience included the Managing Director of the ABC, David Anderson.

We are also organising forums like this one around the country, the most recent in Western Australia.

And a bit of history …..  For those of you not familiar with the life of Andrew Bent, we have produced a flyer (below) with his biography.  In 1824 he challenged Colonial Governor Arthur’s right to censor the news in the Hobart Town Gazette. Bent was subsequently gaoled for his determination to present news free of government interference.

It is appropriate that we Tasmanians are at the forefront of the Friends’ campaign as Hobart was the birthplace of the fight for press freedom in Australia.

Following the forum, the four speakers responded to audience questions covering:

Suggestions for individual action on media freedom and tackling public apathy

  • Don’t sit with people who agree with you.
  • Talk to people - could be a chat over the fence with a neighbour, a letter to a newspaper, interact on social media.
  • Genuine engagement - keep working at it.
  • Remember that people who might not care about media freedom as such do care about the right to know and about misconduct.  Talk with them about the role of the media in facilitating uncovering that misconduct.
  • Remember that you get what you vote for.

Actions we can take towards getting a Bill of Rights

It’s hard when the Government and the alternative Government take the same position. We have to lobby endlessly to break that stalemate. We need to keep applying pressure.  It will require both community and legislative activism. Do whatever we can to generate public comment and media interest.