Friday, February 12, 2016

No freedom of the press in Australia

In 2014, Guardian Australia journalist Paul Farrell revealed that Australia had intruded into Indonesian waters in its efforts to turn back refugees. The Australian government later admitted the incursion - but in the meantime they were having Farrell investigated by the Australian Federal Police in an effort to expose and punish his sources:

Sitting on my desk now are more than 200 pages of heavily redacted police files. Every journalist, in fact every Australian, has a right under the country’s privacy law to access personal information held on them by government agencies.

The files are made up of operational centre meeting minutes, file notes, interview records and a plan for an investigation the AFP undertook into one of my stories. Most concerning is what appears to be a list of suspects the AFP drew up, along with possible offences they believe they may have committed.

The documents show that during the course of an investigation into my sources for a story I had written, an AFP officer logged more than 800 electronic updates on the investigation file.

It’s a mosaic in document form of state surveillance of journalists by police. The files give an insight into the fragile state of journalism in Australia and the ease with which the police choose to take up these investigations because of poorly defined laws.

And Farrell is nowhere near the first victim of this anti-democratic attitude. The fundamental problem here is that Australia effectively still has an Official Secrets Act and criminalises all unauthorised disclosure of information. And in the hands of a government deeply embarrassed by its actions and desperate to hide them from the public, its easy to see how journalism is equated with espionage and journalists as spies who need to be investigated (and potentially prosecuted). But that's not how a democratic government is supposed to behave.

And fundamentally, if a government's actions can't withstand public scrutiny, maybe they shouldn't be doing them in the first place?