Classification Board ruled a news.com.au article was RC, refused classification.
Classification Board ruled a news.com.au article was RC, refused classification.

Why was this story taken down?

TODAY, news.com.au has published a Press Council decision that ruled in its favour - accepting there was public interest in its article publicising the disturbing ways Islamic State was trying to target potential victims through sites like Gumtree.

The problem is, the article titled "Islamic State terror guide encourages luring victims via Gumtree, eBay" no longer exists.

A week after it was published on May 31, 2017, the Attorney-General's office contacted news.com.au to demand it be taken down, saying the Classification Board had ruled it should be refused classification as it "directly or indirectly" advocated terrorist acts.

It appears to be the first time section 9A of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 has been used to censor a news report, since it was first added in 2007.

The action has alarmed the publisher of news.com.au as Australian media in general were not informed the Classification Board had the power to ban news stories or that the eSafety Commissioner had the power to instigate investigations into news articles.

"The first news.com.au knew of this matter was when contacted by the Attorney-General's Department and advised of the Classification Board decision," news.com.au argued as part of a separate Press Council investigation into the article.

"The department, board and the eSafety Commissioner did not contact news.com.au beforehand to advise of the investigation. Consequently, news.com.au was not given the right to make submissions or a defence in regard to the article."

News.com.au removed the article as it was facing legal penalties from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) if it refused, including fines or even civil or criminal legal action.

In justifying its decision, the Classification Board noted the article contained "detailed references and lengthy quotations from Rumiyah (Islamic State's propaganda magazine)" with limited author text to provide context.

News.com.au asked the board why there was no opportunity for news organisations to defend the article based on public interest grounds but a response provided by a spokesman for the eSafety Commissioner did not directly address this.

The spokesman said the board did consider whether the material could "reasonably be considered to be done merely as part of public discussion or debate, or as entertainment or satire" before making its decision.

He also acknowledged this may have been the first time a news article had been censored using this section.

Passages in the article were taken from of Islamic State propaganda magazine Rumiyah.
Passages in the article were taken from of Islamic State propaganda magazine Rumiyah.

"We are not aware of any similar decisions by the Classification Board, however we are aware of ongoing efforts by government departments, universities and indeed industry bodies such as the Australian Press Council to encourage and promote responsible, balanced reporting of news and issues relating to terrorism," the spokesman said.

There is now concern about what the situation means for the operation of a free and independent media in Australia.

Representatives of news.com.au have tried numerous times to get further explanation from the Attorney-General's Department about the operation of the powers but these have been unsuccessful.

Recent inquiries to the department about how it became involved, whether the application of section 9A is reasonable or could be considered censorship, have also not been addressed.

"The Attorney-General was appointed in December 2017 and is therefore not aware of what discussions may or may not have taken place between the office of his predecessor and media outlets," a spokesman for the Attorney-General told news.com.au.

"Classification Board decisions are a matter for that agency which sits in the Communications portfolio."

The eCommissioner has also declined to reveal the source of "several complaints" that sparked its review, and whether they were from a member of the public or from a government official or representative.

"It is inappropriate to comment on the identity of individuals submitting complaints about offensive and illegal content, or to disclose any other information which could compromise the operational integrity of the investigation process," a spokesman said.

News.com.au editor-in-chief Kate de Brito said any censorship of the media by a government department raised serious concerns about press freedom.

"This is a deeply concerning development of media censorship. The Classification Board has silenced the reporting of a legitimate threat to the Australian public," she said. "Australians have a right to know if their safety or lives are being placed at risk - there can be few more important matters of public interest.

"The secretive way the Classifications Board acted in this way is a direct attack on freedom of the press and journalists should condemn it."

While the Press Council also received at least one complaint about the article, its ruling published today found there was a public interest in news.com.au publishing the article.

It agreed the article featured limited author input, analysis or context but accepted the need to warn the public.

"The Council accepts the public interest in alerting readers to potential risks to their safety," the ruling says.

"The Council considers that on balance, the public interest in alerting readers to the dangerous content of the terrorist propaganda and its instructional detail was greater than the risk to their safety posed by the publication's effective republication of terrorist propaganda content."


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