Introduction by Croakey: The actions of Belarusian authorities in forcing a civilian plane into an emergency landing in order to arrest a journalist have been widely condemned, and described as an “act of air piracy and state terrorism”.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and European Federation of Journalists have called for the release of Belarussian journalist Raman Pratasevich, as well as 28 other journalists and media professionals currently detained in Belarus.
Earlier this month, the IFJ condemned the Israeli military for targeted attacks against media offices in Gaza, calling for the “international community to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against media freedom”.
However, these chilling and highly visible incidents are just the tip of the iceberg of attacks upon media freedom, which is also under threat in Australia, reports Croakey editor Jennifer Doggett. She urges the health sector to engage with these concerns as important public health matters.
Jennifer Doggett writes:
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important role of the media in public health.
In Australia and worldwide the media has played a crucial role in providing the community with information about the virus, supporting public health responses and raising awareness of the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups, such as the lockdown in the public housing towers in Melbourne.
Trust in the independence and veracity of the media has been a crucial antidote to the spread of mis/disinformation about the pandemic.
Despite these clear public health benefits, COVID-19 has also resulted in a worldwide trend to reduce media freedom; for example, via the use of emergency laws and regulations.
These have been documented in a recent report from the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, which found that journalists have faced the risk of severe criminal penalties for the alleged dissemination of false information and denial of access to public information on the pandemic, including access to healthcare workers and facilities.
In several countries where media capture by political forces has seriously distorted the media market, this has resulted in increased government control news narratives through ownership or control of influential media and the misuse of media regulation.
The report argues that this has undermined the fundamental rights of people across Europe to enjoy access to uncensored information freely and from diverse sources.
Other reports have described increases in violence towards journalists; for example, in the Capitol riots in Washington earlier this year where journalists were assaulted by protestors.
Worldwide journalists have been detained, murdered, arrested and censored. In conflict and disaster zones and countries they have been attacked. In some countries criticism of the government is sufficient to put journalists’ lives in danger.
There is a gender element to this trend, with violence disproportionately impacting women.
A major interdisciplinary study from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) under commission from UNESCO, involved 901 journalists from 125 countries.
It concluded that:
There is nothing virtual about online violence. It has become the new frontline in journalism safety – and women journalists sit at the epicentre of risk.
Networked misogyny and gaslighting intersect with racism, religious bigotry, homophobia and other forms of discrimination to threaten women journalists – severely and disproportionately.
Threats of sexual violence and murder are frequent and sometimes extended to their families.”
A recent Australian report made similar findings.
The ‘Unsafe at Work – Assaults on Journalists: the MEAA Report into the State of Press Freedom in Australia in 2021’ was produced by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).
It found that Australian journalists are being harassed by online abuse, primarily through unmoderated social media platforms. Much of this is gendered cyberhate, targeting and dangerously threatening women journalists.
CEO of the MEAA, Paul Murphy, stated that: “The past year has seen an emerging danger to press freedom: the threat to the safety of journalists at work. According to MEAA’s 2021 press freedom survey, 88.8% of Australian journalists are fearful that threats, harassment, and intimidation are on the rise.”
These findings highlight the importance of a report released last week by the Senate Inquiry into the adequacy of Commonwealth laws and frameworks covering the disclosure and reporting of sensitive and classified information.
This inquiry investigated the current legal protections for journalists and made recommendations for legislative, regulatory and cultural changes to support increased media freedom.
Background to the Inquiry
In early June 2019, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) executed two search warrants at the homes and offices of several Australian journalists, including the ABC head office in Sydney.
These searches were related to reports concerning the surveillance capabilities of the Australian Signals Directorate and the covert operations of Australiaʹs Special Forces in Afghanistan
The AFP argued that these reports were contrary to provisions of the Crimes Act 1914 and had the potential to undermine Australiaʹs national securityʹ.
These events attracted widespread media attention and led to the Senate Inquiry which addressed a range of issues relating to the disclosure and public reporting of sensitive and classified information, including the appropriate regime for warrants regarding journalists and media organisations and adequacy of existing legislation; whistleblower protections for public sector employees; and the adequacy of referral practices of the Australian Government in relation to leaks of sensitive and classified information.
International and domestic laws
This inquiry highlighted the lack of protection for journalists under Commonwealth law, despite the fact that Australia has ratified the international treaty that specifically protects this human right.
Dr Julie Posetti, a legal expert with the International Center for Journalists, told the Inquiry:
One of the things that has stood out to me and to others is what appears to be inherent disrespect or failure [to] acknowledge UN conventions and resolutions that provide special protections and recognition of the need for such protections for those who undertake acts of journalism.
Those are essential to democratic functions of a free and critical press.”
International organisations participating in the Inquiry commented that Australia was unusual among democratic countries in its use of legislation and law enforcement to restrict reporting by journalists and media outlets.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) stated that, when democratic countries like Australia ʹcriminalise, stigmatise and target journalists and independent mediaʹ, it sets a dangerous precedent:
…we must consider recent events in Australia which threaten to damage the standing of the government and raise serious questions about its longstanding commitment to media freedom in the eyes of the international media community.
More worryingly it can be seen to give a green light to other non‐democratic governments to attack media and journalistsʹ rights.”
The 2021 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders, ranked Australia 25th in the world for press freedom (down from 12 in 2002) stating that:
Despite appearances, press freedom is fragile in Australia.
Its constitutional law contains no press freedom guarantees and recognises no more than an ‘implied freedom of political communication’.”
Right to know
Australia’s main media outlets formed an alliance to advocate for increased protection of the media and ran a campaign called Australiaʹs Right to Know (ARTK) calling for legislative change in six key areas, including increased protection for journalists in disclosing information in the public interest.
They argued that the current protections were inadequate to ensure journalists were able to access and public information which had clear public benefits.
Other media stakeholders provided similar advice to the Inquiry.
The MEAA’s Paul Murphy said that national security law, criminal investigation and the threat of prosecution are having a ʹchilling effectʹ on public interest journalism.
He said that Australiaʹs national security legislation does not recognise the importance of public interest journalism. “…the presumption in the legislation is that it is not in the public interest for this information to come forward, and it then falls on to the journalist or the whistleblower to prove why it was in the public interest”.
Legal experts also supported the need for reform of current legislation and broader policy changes to support public interest journalism.
For example, the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended “a new and principled framework striking a fair balance between the public interest in open and accountable government and adequate protection for Commonwealth information that should legitimately be kept confidential”.
While the focus of the report is on large media outlets, it’s also important to remember that the media are made up of a range of big and small organisations and all have an important role to play in contributing to a healthy media ecosystem.
Small independent media are particularly vulnerable to incursions upon media freedoms as they do not have the resources to fight legal battles or run public relations campaigns.
Protecting media freedom should involve policies and legislative changes which protect all forms of media, not just those with the highest profiles and the deepest pockets.
Public health issues
Media freedom might not be on the radar of most health organisations but it is crucial to public health, particularly in the context of natural disasters and other threats to public health and safety.
Many stakeholders participating in the Inquiry commented on the important role of the media during COVID‐19, including in informing the Australian community about health impacts, responses and strategies.
For example, Chris Uhlmann, political editor with Nine News and a member of ARTK said:
…this pandemic has been a great example of how the media does its job.
To a large extent, the media has done everything in its power, including broadcasting endless press conferences from the prime ministers or premiers of the day to make sure that the public gets the message.
But itʹs also been applying scrutiny to the way the government is doing its job, and important gaps that have exposed people to danger have been exposed by all parts of the media. Look at nursing homes and the work that has been done on that.”
Two key areas relevant to public health addressed by the Inquiry are Freedom of Information and whistleblower protections.
FOI is an important tool used by media to report on public health issues and historically has played an important role in public health advocacy and policy making, contributing to increased government transparency and accountability.
While there are legislative provisions covering FOI in Australia, the Inquiry found that there are deeply embedded issues – such as risk aversion – that are creating a culture within the public sector that does not value and is opposed to the release of government information in appropriate (non‐exempted) circumstances.
It found that until this culture of secrecy is discredited at all levels, the committee is concerned that the legitimate objectives of the FOI Act will continue to be frustrated.
The Committee recommended that the Australian Government work with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner to identify opportunities to promote a culture of transparency consistent with the objectives of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 among the public service and Ministers’ offices.
Whistleblowers have also played an important role in healthcare and public health; for example, through exposing harmful practices in hospitals and revealing environmental threats.
Protecting whistleblowers is important to ensure people who identify harmful practices within a healthcare setting are not penalised for making this known.
However, there are very limited protections for whistleblowers in Australia from international and domestic law.
This can hinder the role of the media in holding government to account as it will discourage whistleblowers from coming forward.
Final report and recommendations
The Committee acknowledged the importance of national security laws to protect Australia and the Australian community from harm and agreed that at times it is in the national interest for information relating to national security to be kept from public view.
However, they also agreed that it is also vital for government to be open and accountable and that a free press is an important way in which this occurs.
To balance these two important tenets of democracy, the Committee agreed that Australiaʹs interests are best served when a “proportionate, appropriate and reasonable balance” needs to be struck. It argued that over the past two decades national security has been prioritised over press freedom.
The report states that this is due to combination of factors – such as the enactment of extensive national security laws, and a willingness to investigate and prosecute journalists under these laws – which has intensified an existing culture of government secrecy and undermined and discouraged the media from fulfilling its democratic function.
To address this issue, the committee recommended a comprehensive process of legislative reform aimed at establishing a new and principled framework to strike “a fair balance between the public interest in open and accountable government and adequate protection for Commonwealth information that should legitimately be kept confidential”.
It also recommended specific changes to public service and Ministerial practices and cultures, including increased education of public servants about the importance of media freedom.
The Committee did not accept the recommendation of many stakeholders for specific legislation to protect media freedom; however, this was supported by the Greens in their minority report (discussed below).
Media Freedom Act
The Greens minority report supported a recommendation from a number of submissions and witnesses for a single law reform Act – the Media Freedom Act – to provide stronger protections for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the media context.
The reasons for this are that there are currently no express constitutional or legislative instruments (such as federal human rights charter) that guarantee freedom of expression and only minimal federal protections for journalists and media organisations.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance pointed out that a Media Freedom Act would help to address the imbalance between Australiaʹs national security framework, and the need to maintain public accountability and government transparency.
Legal expert Dr Lawrence McNamara, said:
The real problem we have is that we do not have constitutional protection for media freedom…
Itʹs glaringly obvious that what we thought were normative principles and frameworks in the Australian environment and which meant we didnʹt necessarily need constitutional protections has been revealed to be an extremely problematic assumption.”
The Alliance for Journalistsʹ Freedom (AJF) emphasised the importance of a Media Freedom Act in supporting democracy in Australia, saying it would “aid the mediaʹs ability to [enable, support and protect democracy], by enshrining press freedom in legislation and more clearly define its democratic role. It would clarify the boundaries between appropriate transparency and necessary secrecy.”
Role of health sector
Freedom of the press is fundamental to democracy and human rights and is also an important public health issue.
Health organisations have an important role to play in promoting and protecting media freedom through:
- Participating in inquiries and consultation processes on legislative changes (for example a review of the secrecy provisions in Commonwealth law being undertaken by the Attorney‐Generalʹs Department)
- Supporting media outlets which cover public health issues
- Calling out online bullying and intimidation practices against journalists
- Promoting the public health benefits of media freedom to government, for example, the role of the media in combatting COVID-19 mis/disinformation.
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