Media chiefs slam Australian press freedom curbs

Australian public broadcaster ABC's head office building in Sydney.
Australian public broadcaster ABC's head office building in Sydney. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY • Australia's tarnished reputation as a bastion of press freedom came under further attack yesterday, with media executives telling a parliamentary inquiry there are many laws that criminalise journalism in a country plagued by an air of official secrecy.

The comments came at the start of an inquiry into press freedom by Parliament's Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security that was called following high-profile raids on media outlets by the Australian Federal Police in June.

A dozen senior executives from Australia's major news organisations presented a united front at the Sydney hearing, demanding changes to national security laws to protect journalists.

News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller said Australia has "many laws that criminalise journalism" and they are "creating a secret society that most Australians would not recognise as our own". He criticised lawmakers for stamping the words "secret" or "classified" on documents and then hiding behind laws that keep Australians in the dark.

"We may not be living in a police state, but we are living in a state of secrecy," he said. "The package of law changes that we are seeking will put a stop to the creeping secrecy that shrouds Canberra."

Various media chiefs described a culture of "intimidation and secrecy" having a "chilling effect" on legitimate public interest journalism.

The hearing comes after federal police raids on the Canberra home of a News Corp journalist and the Sydney office of public broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corporation over separate investigations into government leaks.

 
 

The raids were widely condemned as heavy-handed and for having a restrictive effect on reporting.

"We're here to talk about laws - old and new laws - being used to unreasonably and unnecessarily inhibit the media," Mr Hugh Marks, chief executive of commercial television network Channel 9, told the hearing. "Issues of national security are clearly important, but so is truth."

Today, the committee will hear from law enforcement officials and intelligence agencies, including the Australian Federal Police.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2019, with the headline 'Media chiefs slam Australian press freedom curbs'. Print Edition | Subscribe