Redacted Gif for Press Freedom
Redacted Gif for Press Freedom

The slide into secrecy must stop

Free speech in Australia is under attack.

Australians either allow the slide to secrecy to continue, or we rally and seek strengthened free speech laws.

Countless laws exist that restrict the media right to publish in Australia. The obvious ones are defamation, contempt of court, suppression orders, children's court rules, or national security secrecy laws that allow raids on journalists.

The media accepts that laws in these areas are necessary. In all cases such laws are a balancing act.

For example, defamation balances the right to free speech against protection of reputation.

Contempt of court and suppression laws balance free speech and open justice against the right to a fair trial.

 

 

 

 

Getting the balance right is the key - and at the moment, the balance is off. Free speech is not being valued as it should be. There is no "first amendment right to free speech" such as in the United States.

Free speech is not just a concept. It includes the media's right and ability to inform you - the public - about important issues.

I've been a media lawyer for more than 20 years. Pretty much every day for those 20 years I've been involved in the application of those laws. It might be a case in court, some advice I provide about a proposed article or responding to a police subpoena, but I've seen just about every secrecy law in operation.

And make no mistake, in my view the media is definitely more inhibited and restricted in what it can publish today than it was 20 years ago.

So while freedoms and rights in just about all other areas of society are becoming more liberal, free speech in Australia is becoming more restricted.

The slide to secrecy must stop.

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Federal police going through Annika Smethurst’s home in Canberra. Picture: Supplied
Federal police going through Annika Smethurst’s home in Canberra. Picture: Supplied

So how is the media being restricted? Where do I start?

Sources are key to exposing inappropriate conduct in government entity or large corporations. Sources come forward because they're courageous and because they know journalists won't reveal them. But that comes at a cost. I've acted for journalists who have been subjected to terrible harassment and received convictions and punishments for doing nothing but their job of exposing inappropriate conduct. I've sat in a room with a journalist and his parents and advised he might go to jail over the sobbing of his mother.

Only this year Federal Police raided the ABC and the home of News Corp's gun journalist Annika Smethurst. Annika's home was raided and her undies drawer checked (seriously, they searched her undies drawer!) because she dared to publish a story that, in my view, was clearly in the public interest. That search warrant was granted without any ability for Annika to argue it.

So while we have limited journalists sources shield laws, they need to be seriously strengthened.

 

Justin Quill is a media lawyer who acts for News Corp and other members of the Right to Know campaign.

 

 


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