Print, online and on-air news outlets on Monday joined in a concerted campaign to pressure the Australian government to soften its restrictive secrecy laws.
In a rare show of unity, the Australian media published redacted front pages in a protest against press restrictions.
News outlets of the News Corp Australia and Nine mastheads showed blacked-out text beside red stamps marked “secret”.
Several TV, radio and online outlets supported the campaign by the Right to Know Coalition.
Media reports from Australia said:
Nineteen Australian media organizations and journalist unions, some of them traditionally rivals, banded together for the “Your Right To Know” campaign.
Australian media are protesting the country’s encroaching secrecy laws.
“When government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering up?” was the question that ran on the cover of newspapers including The Australian, owned by Murdoch; the liberal Fairfax newspapers; and smaller city and rural newspapers. The question was accompanied with lines of text that were heavily blacked out.
As part of the campaign, known as #righttoknow, Australian news outlets have highlighted instances when their reporters were blocked from obtaining documents under Freedom of Information requests that bear little connection to national security matters.
The Daily Telegraph, a News Corp. tabloid, referenced stories on confidentiality clauses preventing the publishing of assaults against older patients in care facilities and suppression orders on the identity of sex offenders as examples of government secrecy that had become endemic.
It said its redacted front page was “a bleak warning of a future where laws continue to erode media freedom so governments can cover up information from the public.”
The Sydney Morning Herald called for “significant law reform to stop the suppression of information,” and The Australian newspaper spoke of a “sustained attack on the rights of journalists.”
Television networks including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and radio stations planned to run advertising calling on the government to overhaul its secrecy laws.
The campaign is intended to pressure the federal government to change laws that threaten jail time to certain whistle-blowers and journalists, and which allow the authorities to withhold information that is often unrelated to matters of national security.
The laws fall under an umbrella of secrecy that consecutive governments have created over nearly two decades. No other developed democracy has as strong a stranglehold on its secrets as Australia.
For years, governments on both sides of the political aisle have granted law enforcement and intelligence agencies more powers, and diminished those of its citizens.
Australia is a country that claims to be democratic, but has no Bill of Rights.
Despite widespread media opposition to the laws, it has taken years for news organizations to agree to take a concerted stand. But two raids by the Australian Federal Police in June — one on the home of a journalist, and the second on the offices of the ABC — brought to light the ease with which the authorities could execute search warrants on journalists, and how few rights journalists and their sources had. A former army lawyer was charged over the leaks. On Sunday, the Australian government reiterated it was possible that three journalists may face prosecution in the wake of the raids.
The media organizations said the raids were conducted over articles, which had relied on leaks from whistleblowers. One of the reports detailed allegations of war crimes, while the other reported an alleged attempt by a government agency to spy on Australian citizens.
The heightened determination to prevent terrorist attacks in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks found its way to Australia from the U.S., with the government of the prime minister at the time, John Howard, passing increasingly invasive legislation, including a terrorism financing bill, a telecommunications interception bill, and an anti-hoax law that carried a 10-year imprisonment for offenders.
Some examples of government secrecy include that the government has plans to undertake secret surveillance of its citizens, and that Australian land is being sold to foreign powers.
The #righttoknow coalition has six key demands at the heart of its campaign, including a review of Freedom of Information laws, the right to contest search warrants before they are issued, the overhaul of defamation laws and limits on what documents can be marked secret.
The campaign argues that tougher security laws enacted over the past two decades have threatened investigative journalism, eroding the public’s “right to know”.
Since new counter-espionage legislation was introduced last year, media outlets have lobbied for journalists and whistleblowers to be given exemptions to report sensitive information.
This forms part of a list of seven demands put to the government on Monday, which also calls for reforms to freedom of information and defamation laws.
Currently, some federal cabinet documents can be marked secret for 25 years, whether they relate to national security matters or not. Freedom of Information requests often return to a journalist months after they were initially made, heavily redacted.
“The government has been unable to point to an example where a genuine media outlet” has risked national security, said an editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald, “and we take our responsibilities in this area very seriously.”
“But the public has a right to know about abuses of power and mismanagement which, under current laws, governments effectively have the power to cover up,” it continued.
A parliamentary inquiry into press freedom, set up after the June raids, will release its findings next month.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that while he believes in freedom of the press, no one is above the law.
“The rule of law has to be applied evenly and fairly in the protection of our broader freedoms,” he said. “And so I don’t think anyone is, I hope, looking for a leave pass on any of those things, I wouldn’t and nor should anyone else.”
Australian journalists are telling that the laws related to national security have stifled reporting and created a “culture of secrecy” in Australia.
Michael Miller, executive chairman of News Corp Australia, in a tweet urged the public to ask of the government: “What are they trying to hide from me?”
The company’s chief rival, Nine – publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – ran similar front pages.
80 legislations on secrecy
George Williams, the dean of law at the University of New South Wales, said that since 2002, successive Australian governments have passed more than 80 pieces of legislation, purportedly for national security reasons, that go far beyond those of other countries that have higher terrorist threat ratings.
And they go beyond freedom of the press, he said.
“There’s an even larger number of laws that go to the suppression of free speech,” he said. “It’s extended to doctors in overseas detention camps facing jail for talking about conditions there.”
“What is normal here is exceptional overseas, but people just don’t see that,” said Williams. “We’re almost in this bubble with our own quite unique system of lacking decent free speech protection.”
“Australia is at risk of becoming the world’s most secretive democracy,” said David Anderson, managing director of ABC, in a statement.