Earlier this week the Right to Know Coalition released their report on the state of free speech in Australia. The report is a damning indictment of state and federal government policies which deny public access to a plethora of information through stifling legal provisions. The report says “free speech and media freedom[s] are being whittled away” by 335 acts of parliaments, more than 500 legal provisions and over a thousand court suppression orders.
The Independent Audit of the State of Free Speech in Australia (pdf) chaired by former NSW Ombudsman Irene Moss was presented to the Right to Know Coalition on 31 October. Its broad conclusion was that media freedom was diminishing gradually and imperceptibly. The report claimed that many of Australia’s democratic mechanisms were “flawed” and “wearing thin”. It cited poor support for whistleblowers, the lack of journalist shield laws, secrecy provisions in legislation, the “culture of secrecy” in many government agencies and numerous examples of failed or significantly delayed Freedom of Information (FOI) applications.
The report made three key recommendations. It stated the Prime Minister and Premiers should immediately issue a directive to their staff to take the laws seriously, it said that after the election the new government (of either party) should implement the Law Reform commission recommendation to eliminate the insidious use of "conclusive certificates" (pdf) to restrict access, and lastly the government should ask the Law Reform commission to redesign the 1982 FOI Law to bring it into the information age.
The media Coalition have released the document now for maximum electoral impact. The report contained several damning FOI examples such as an April 2005 request for the Defence Department to release documents on Australia’s position on rendition (not yet actioned), the results of opinion polls assessing the success of the workchoices legislation (delayed until after the election on the flimsy excuse that the government wanted to release all its opinion survey data together) and a 1993 application to the Queensland Treasurer for information about Jupiter’s Casino which took 12 years to answer. The high cost of FOI is another failure factor. The Herald Sun recently abandoned its two year campaign to seek federal politicians’ travel information after it was quoted a fee of $1.25 million – 32 person years of work, apparently.
Australia’s Right to Know is a broad-based media coalition formed in May 2007. Its members include most of the power players in Australia’s mediascape. The initial members included News Ltd, Fairfax, ABC, Channel Seven, SBS, Austereo, AAP and Sky News. The group is chaired by News Ltd Australian CEO John Hartigan. The group released a joint statement in May which began by saying the parties had grouped together because they were “deeply troubled” by the state of free speech in Australia. They were careful to say this was not a party political issue and said all parties needed to embrace urgent reform. Their first priority was to audit the state of free speech in the country. They were concerned by the 2006 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index which ranked Australia 35th in the world.
Since the initial statement, Reporters Without Borders have released their 2007 index with Australia ranked a more healthy 12th best. Yet their annual report for Australia did not ascribe any reason for the improvement. Instead it condemned the 2005 anti-terror laws and the 2006 law on interception of communications which increased the risks of the anti-terror legislation being used abusively against the media. The report also remarked on the September 2006 High Court’s refusal to allow a journalist access to documents on the Australian government’s tax policy. It quoted the Australian Press Council condemnation of the decision which it said would give the authorities a “fresh impetus to suppress information that is embarrassing or politically inconvenient”.
The Press Council was a party to that case. The case was The Australian’s FOI editor Michael McKinnon's appeal against Treasurer Peter Costello's refusal to grant access to information on the first home buyer's scheme and bracket creep. The Council stated that in finding that the tribunal did not err, the Court failed to give adequate weight to the aims of the FoI Act, to "extend as far as possible the right of the Australian community to access to information in the possession of the Government of the Commonwealth". It said the true losers were Australian voters and taxpayers.
The case was a major spur to the setting up of the 'Australia's Right to Know' Coalition. Lucinda Duckett, a News Ltd executive and one of the driving forces behind the coalition, told ABC’s Media Report in May why they were taking action. She said that while she didn’t believe any of the imposed laws were deliberately done out of malice that the 500 legal prohibitions (now confirmed by the audit) on what can be published “form a very dangerous picture for Australia”. She said some of the biggest problems occur at state level. “Because the states are not united on many of their restrictions, and while state borders exist, they don't exist for broadcasters or for publishers, or for the Internet,” she said. “The difficulties we have as journalists, in reporting things that can only go so far and then have to suddenly stop.”
So far, neither the Howard Government nor the Rudd Opposition have made any election comment on the newly released report.