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article imageOp-Ed: Whistleblower protest — Australian media blackout front pages

By Paul Wallis     Oct 20, 2019 in World
Sydney - What’s left of Australian newspapers blacked out their front pages in protest against laws which infringe on their ability to report the news. News Corp and its competitors joined together for the first time ever.
The blacked-out front pages are a first for the Right To Know organisation, a relatively new media cross-platform. They include symbolic references to public issues like aged care between the blacked-out text. The problem is press freedom. The media organizations say that laws related to whistleblowing and particularly national security have affected their ability to report some news at all.
That’s quite literally true. Legislation related to national security operations prohibits reporting even basic information regarding security operations. This legislation is much more far-reaching than other Western countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, etc.
The anti-terrorism laws were introduced to ensure that current security operations weren’t put at risk by media coverage. The legislation prohibits any reference to those operations, or, in some interpretations, matters related to operations. ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and the Australian Federal Police are the primary enforcers of this legislation. They’re also the ones most likely to be affected by any breaches.
The whistleblowing laws, however, are much more legalistic in nature. Whistleblowers have to run the gauntlet of Australian evidence laws, which is a long-running sore with Australian news media. Whistleblowers have to provide evidence which is admissible and be subjected to cross-examination, and that, of course, makes them targets. Journalists can go to jail for refusing to divulge sources of whistleblower stories.
Australia s media  on the same page for a change.
Australia's media, on the same page for a change.
Then there’s the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which allows agencies to black out information for various reasons. FOI does actually include a few legitimate reasons for blacking out or not releasing information, like current activities related to enforcement, etc., but the scope for suppressing information is pretty wide. Some information may become effectively obsolete as a result of information which is blacked out. It’s hardly an ideal situation for reporting.
Things have now heated up considerably. A recent raid on the ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, and a News Corp journalist’s home regarding alleged atrocities by Australian troops, including two deaths brought things to the boil. While these raids were NOT conducted under the security legislation, apparently the penny finally dropped with the Australian media about the range of restrictions on their ability to report. When the new laws were enacted, there was some muttering about the possible risks for journalists, but not much actual protest. Now it’s literally front page news.
News media culture
The Australian news media does occasionally justify its existence with effective investigations and reporting. That said, this response to issues affecting its own interests is years overdue. A smug protected species culture, self-righteous to an obscene level in some cases, doesn’t help. Australian media has also helped spread disinformation and psychotic non-reporting as much as anyone, anywhere.
The recent Banking Royal Commission showed the extent of non-reportage to a truly repulsive level, and the aged care horror stories which people have known about for decades are just as bad.
(Put it this way – I was going to do a journalism degree a few years after joining Digital Journal. I didn’t. The sheer lack of ethical sanitation and the smug pig-like editorial culture in Australian media were quite enough to turn me off the whole idea. Nor can I tolerate the sheer volume of utter crap willingly and endlessly produced by the news media. When it comes to the supposedly “rabid leftist” ABC (a very mild, slightly caffeinated middle-class suburban organisation, in fact) reciting Trump misinformation about tariffs verbatim, for example, forget it.)
The problems nobody’s fixing
The practical achievements are also lacking:
• The national security legislation will take quite a lot of changing to protect reporting and also ensure security of operational information. Security agencies worked hard to protect their needs, which are, by the way, also legitimate. Undoing that result won’t be popular, and a practical way of allowing reporting will have to be figured out.
• With regard to whistleblowing, the abject failure by all involved to even try to create a safe evidence environment for whistleblowers and journalists has done the damage. Courts have no choice; evidence is admissible or not. Witnesses are admissible or not. There’s no middle ground or any other options for the courts at all. The Evidence Act rules. Anonymity isn’t an option, either, which can make life very difficult for whistleblowers and journalists.
There’s no clear end to this situation. Protest, fine, but what’s actually being done about any of these issues? There’s a sort of tepid interest from the government on the subject of press freedom, but what’s that worth in hard information terms? Probably not much. We’ll see, perhaps years from now, some pitiful compromised deal.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
More about Austrlaian newspapers black out front pages in pro, News Corp Australia, Australian security legislation, whistleblower evidence, jounalists and whistleblowing
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