Press under fire

Scott Morrison says his government’s commitment to press freedom is absolute.

On Thursday, after the federal police raided the Canberra home of Australian Signals Directorate employee Cameron Gill, the prime minister was defiant.

“We are absolutely committed to press freedom,” he said, “and we are also absolutely committed to every Australian being subject to the rule of law.”

But a government committed to freedom of the press doesn’t raid the homes of journalists. Doesn’t raid the headquarters of the national broadcaster over a years-old story that was clearly in the public interest. Which alleged Australian soldiers unlawfully killed civilians while posted in Afghanistan. It doesn’t call up one of Sydney’s most listened to radio shows and demand the host name his source on a story about six Sri Lankan boats making their way to Australia. It doesn’t threaten journalists with criminal penalties merely for being in possession of leaked documents. Doesn’t suggest journalists cannot be exempted from national security laws because their news organisations would become riddled with foreign spies.

A government that cares about press freedom doesn’t seek to destroy the lives of whistleblowers. It doesn’t pursue the conviction of a former military lawyer for theft of Commonwealth property, breaching the Defence Act and the unauthorised disclosure of information. Doesn’t leave a former public servant facing 161 years in prison for simply trying to raise a warning about draconian Tax Office debt collection. Or chase down another for revealing to the world that Australia bugged the government of Timor-Leste in order to get its hands on more of the fledgling nation’s gas reserves. It doesn’t then charge that whistleblower’s lawyer as well, undermining one of the most important relationships in our justice system.

If a government was truly committed to press freedom, it wouldn’t systematically gut its freedom of information apparatus. It wouldn’t, for years, dismiss anything and everything as “on-water matters”. It wouldn’t bar journalists from visiting its offshore detention centres. Wouldn’t use the public’s fear to push through unconsidered national security legislation. It wouldn’t be terrified of even the faintest hint of public scrutiny. Or take every chance it could to undermine the value of the public interest. It wouldn’t ignore calls to reform the country’s defamation laws, which cripple the key function of journalism – to hold the powerful accountable for their actions.

A government committed to press freedom wouldn’t do any of these things. Plainly, these are the actions of a government intent on its destruction.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 7, 2019 as "Press under fire".

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