PM outnumbered on campaign to end govt secrets

 

The Morrison Government is becoming increasingly outnumbered on reforms to secure the public's right to information, with even more political parties throwing their support behind a campaign against government secrecy.

The campaign's supporters now span the political spectrum from the Australian Labor Party to the Centre Alliance, with the Greens and independent members of parliament also backing reforms, and calling whistleblower arrests, journalist raids, and refusals to answer questions "an attack on every Australian".

Despite the overwhelming support, Liberal Party members offered only partial approval for proposed changes to keep the public informed yesterday, with Attorney-General Christian Porter saying the Government was not "close-minded" but would deny greater protections for journalists covering stories within the public interest.

 

Attorney-General Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrive for Question Time. Picture: AAP
Attorney-General Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrive for Question Time. Picture: AAP

 

Mr Porter previously refused to rule out prosecuting journalists for exposing new proposals for the electronic surveillance of Australian citizens, and incidents in which soldiers allegedly killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan.

His statement comes after days of increased public scrutiny of the Government over what the Senate Press Freedom Inquiry heard was a growing "culture of secrecy" in its ranks, and after Australian newspapers turned their front pages black to highlight the issue.

The Australian Labor Party slammed Australia's current approach to whistleblowers and freedom of the press in a letter signed by three parliamentarians yesterday, saying the public's right to stay informed was being treated "as if it were an inconvenience rather than an essential pillar of our democracy".

 

The nationwide campaign follows raids on the ABC's Sydney headquarters and the home of a News Corp journalist in June. Picture: Getty Images
The nationwide campaign follows raids on the ABC's Sydney headquarters and the home of a News Corp journalist in June. Picture: Getty Images

 

"All Australians, as well as friends in democracies around the world, were shocked earlier this year to see Australian Federal Police raiding the office of media organisations and the home of a respected political journalist," they said.

"Labor stands side-by-side with Australia's Right to Know coalition and calls on the Morrison Government to rule out the prosecution of Dan Oakes, Sam Clark, and Annika Smethurst, better protect journalists whose only 'crime' is doing their jobs, fully comply with its obligations under freedom of information laws, and protect whistleblowers."

Queensland Labor Senator Murray Watt said he was "disturbed" at government moves to block information from the public, and veterans affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann pointed to new restrictions on "information coming out of Senate estimates committees".

 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, right, is being criticised over the government’s conduct in regards to press freedom. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, right, is being criticised over the government’s conduct in regards to press freedom. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

 

ABC director of News Gavin Morris, Group Executive Corporate Affairs News Corp Australia Policy and Government Relations Campbell Reid, Nine Political Editor Chris Uhlmann and Nine Group Executive Editor James Chessell in Canberra. Picture: Kym Smith
ABC director of News Gavin Morris, Group Executive Corporate Affairs News Corp Australia Policy and Government Relations Campbell Reid, Nine Political Editor Chris Uhlmann and Nine Group Executive Editor James Chessell in Canberra. Picture: Kym Smith

 

Independent member for Warringah, Zali Steggall, said she also supported press freedom and the role investigative journalists "in holding the government to account," while the independent member for Indi, Helen Haines, said law reform was needed to "enshrine a positive public interest protection for journalists and whistleblowers".

Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the Right to Know campaign highlighted the importance of allowing whistleblowers to expose "wrongdoing and misconduct that would never had the spotlight on them" otherwise.

 

 

"Whether it's cruelty of horses, abuse in aged care, or misconduct of the banks, media freedom and whistleblower protection isn't just about journalists, it's about the public's right to know," she said.

"The message to the Government is very clear and it's time they acted. Giving discretionary power to the Attorney-General just doesn't cut it."

Despite overwhelming support for the six Right to Know reforms, including protection for whistleblowers, changes to Freedom of Information laws, and the right to contest search warrants issued for media outlets, Mr Porter stopped short of supporting the proposals.

 

 

He said the Government would await the findings of the Parliamentary inquiry on press freedom next month, and rejected the idea of giving journalists or whistleblowers protection from "national security laws".

"The Government is not close-minded to any of these options, but ensuring a sensible, evidence-based process such as that adopted by Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and Council of Attorneys-General is the best way to produce workable outcomes," he said.

RIGHT TO KNOW REFORMS 'IGNORED'

Crucial legal reforms needed to protect Australians' right to know were put to the federal government almost a decade ago but the recommendations were still being ignored, the Australian Law Council said yesterday.

The changes, proposed by the Australian Law Reform Commission, included measures to introduce a "public interest exception" to reporting on issues Australians should know about, and reforms to protect whistleblowers who exposed corruption and misdeeds in "good faith".

But the government's failure to heed reforms had led to a "stark imbalance between press freedom and … law enforcement" in the country, the Council warned, and was allowing a culture of secrecy to fester.

The legal recommendations come during a week in which the Morrison Government has been placed under the spotlight by media companies asking for changes to protect whistleblowers, decriminalise public interest journalism, and ensure the public's right to hear information that directly affects them.

 

‘Inconsistent manner’. Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Getty Images
‘Inconsistent manner’. Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: Getty Images

 

In its submission to the Senate Press Freedom Inquiry, the Australian Law Council pointed to the Secrecy Laws and Open Government report, prepared and delivered to the government in 2010.

Its recommendations included the addition of a "general secrecy provision" to Australian criminal laws that would protect matters of national security, while also including an exception for issues within the public interest, and a need to prove that unauthorised publications were "intended to cause harm" before a whistleblower or journalist could be jailed.

But the Council said the Federal Government overlooked this important recommendation while making changes to the Criminal Code, cementing an imbalance of power against the public.

"Secrecy provisions have developed in an ad hoc, inconsistent manner alongside the granting of increased power to law enforcement and security agencies to intercept and access the data, and encrypted data, of Australian citizens," it said.

 

Media outlets across the country published blacked-out front pages as part of a campaign calling for reforms to protect public interest journalism in Australia. Picture: Getty Images
Media outlets across the country published blacked-out front pages as part of a campaign calling for reforms to protect public interest journalism in Australia. Picture: Getty Images

 

"As a result, there is a stark imbalance between press freedom and the powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in favour of the latter."

The Australian Law Council recommended a comprehensive review of secrecy provisions, a public interest test in the Crimes Act, and an "express harm requirement" in the Criminal Code.

 

 

The Inquiry follows police raids on the home of a News Corp journalist and the ABC's Sydney newsroom within days of one another in June, and continuing uncertainty about whether journalists would be prosecuted for doing their jobs.

But ABC news director Gaven Morris said one of the most outrageous aspects of the prosecutions was that the stories behind them - proposals for new electronic surveillance in Australia, and incidents of Australian soldiers killing unarmed civilians - were "all truthful".

"No one is denying the facts, no one is denying the reporting and the journalism wasn't absolutely accurate and done with integrity," he said.

 

The Right to Know coalition, made up of Australia's top media companies and industry organisations, is pushing for stronger protections for media freedom following moves by successive federal governments to penalise whistleblowing and, in some cases, criminalise journalism. Picture: Getty Images
The Right to Know coalition, made up of Australia's top media companies and industry organisations, is pushing for stronger protections for media freedom following moves by successive federal governments to penalise whistleblowing and, in some cases, criminalise journalism. Picture: Getty Images

 

"So we're debating here about whether information that was clearly in the public interest and was clearly accurate and was clearly honest, whether the public should have had the right to have it."

In response to criticism this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that journalists should not be prosecuted "at the whim of politicians" but failed to commit to legal reform or declaring whether existing prosecutions would continue to go ahead.

The Your Right to Know coalition is seeking six legal reforms to ensure the public's right to information. They include protection for public sector whistleblowers, the right to contest warrants for journalists and media organisations, exceptions to stop journalists being jailed for doing their jobs, limits on the types of documents that can be stamped secret, and reforms to Freedom of Information requests and defamation law.



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