Six reforms Australia needs right now
Australians wake this morning to find major news outlets censored with the front pages of newspapers across the country heavily redacted - a bleak warning of a future where laws continue to erode media freedom so that governments can cover up information from the
Key public issues whether it's about the government's potential for misuse of personal data, public funds spent on political campaigns, climate change or even the thousands of complaints against aged care homes we can't reveal, has prompted the unprecedented united campaign for change.
For the first time ever, Australia's leading media organisations have come together in this way to defend the growing threat to every Australian's right to know information that impacts their lives.
This is not just about press freedom.
Australia's Right to Know coalition wants six pillars of change or reform related to laws that affect the public's rights.
While the government withholds information relating to aged care abuse, proposed new powers to spy on ordinary citizens and the terms of land sales to foreign companies, Australians believe these are matters they absolutely have a right to know about.
Among the demanded changes are reforms to the Public Interest Disclosures Act to afford public servants greater protections, including expanding the public's interest test that currently holds bias against external disclosure, a presumption of criminal liability against media for using the information and the government's ability to identify sources via journalists' communications and metadata.
The AFP accessed journalist metadata 58 times in the 2017/18 financial year; that and the use of national security laws potentially impinging press freedom is currently the subject of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
The other pillars of change the coalition of media outlets want is the right to contest the application for warrants for journalists and media organisations, for journalists to be exempt from national security laws that affectively threaten them with jail for doing their job, a new regime that limits which documents can be stamped "secret", a properly functioning Freedom of Information regime that currently allows governments to shut down reporting and reform to defamation laws that have effectively been weaponised to stop reporting of public interest issues.
Our national obsession with national security has seen 75 pieces of related bipartisan-backed legislation pass parliament since the 9/11 terror attacks but there is growing evidence their use is being broadened to keep secrets unrelated to national security.
At a parliamentary inquiry, the now former AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin said in the last five years there had been 75 referrals of potential unauthorised disclosures of information and only two raids, including on the home of a journalist from News Corp Australia and the ABC Sydney headquarters. Media organisations believe that is two is too many.
"The raids on Annika Smethurst and the ABC are the straw that broke the camel's back," News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller said.
"We have been warning about the culture of secrecy and laws that wrongly criminalise journalism for a decade."
News Corp policy executive Campbell Reid said no professional media outlet would knowingly endanger lives with disclosures and governments, police and military forces often take the media into their confidence.
"But on the other hand the same people keep drafting new laws with the power to lock up the very people that they are prepared to trust when it suits them," he said.