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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Press Freedom in Australia stuck in the middle rankings

The 2014 Freedom House report on Press Freedom ranks Australia 33 of 197 countries.We have  hovered around this position since 2006. There is no published country report. The criteria involves 23 questions concerning the legal, political and economic environment. Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands are tied for first; New Zealand 22, Canada 26, the US 30.

The Press Freedom Report 2014 (pdf) published by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance doesn't go in for ratings but cites plenty of concerns in particular the need for uniform shield laws to protect confidential sources, the star chambers where current shield laws have no effect, and ongoing excessive government secrecy of the kind we see with 'Operation Sovereign Borders." 

Michael McKinnon's article on Freedom of Information for the third year slams the Office of Australian Information Commissioner, arguing for a direct right of review by the AAT. While some criticisms of the OAIC about timeliness are valid and have been made here as well, others in my view aren't. With the budget decision to abolish the OAIC, assign the FOI review function to the tribunal and complaints to the Ombudsman with no additional resources, 'guidance' functions to AGD, and drop leadership responsibillity for open, transparent and accountable government over the side altogether, McKinnon may have got more than he asked for.

Interesting that Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was and continues to be seen as the greatest impediment to free speech in this country according to both Prime Minister Abbott before and Attorney General Brandis before and after the election. Ardour for repeal may have waned somewhat since but Commissioner Tim Wilson is still on the job, warning that s 18C in its present form is dangerous, potentially discriminatory and must be changed. To be met by other arguments for limited if any change.

But repeal or amendment of s 18C doesn't appear to be high on the journalists' priority list of freedom issues and concerns if the content of the Press Freedom Report is any indication. In 63 pages, it rates four sentences in the Law Summary (page 7) by Peter Bartlett of Minter Ellison who makes a plea for better ways to deal with frivolous complaints against the media, and adds:
"that said, we need anti-discrimination legislation to cover appropriate cases."
David Marr tries to jolt media organisations into action, suggesting government secrecy has reached the same low point of 2007:
There was such a campaign once: the Australia’s Right To Know coalition of proprietors and  the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance  (MEAA) formed in the last years of the Howard government which for a while galvanised  attention on problems that still face us today. But  it petered out in the Labor years – and not because  government under Labor was an open book. It’s time to revive the Right To Know. Journalists  will report and mock, but the union and the  proprietors need to insist. MEAA wrote to its  partners in the coalition in early February in the  hope that  “a comprehensive industry approach  may help in getting some movement in this area”.  A month later, not a single media outlet had  replied.  Yet the rhetoric  The Oz used when we were all  fighting for the Right To Know still looks good  today: “Australia has nothing to fear from  transparency, openness and access to information,  except that the workings of government, and our  journalism, will improve.”
In that year Australia was 39th in the Freedom House rankings, prompting media organisations to say 'enough.' 

The ARTK website has been dormant for years. As Marr recounts the MEAA attempt to get things moving came to nothing.

If the beast stirs, there are plenty of potential partners interested in holding government to the hard won improvements from a 30 year battle, and to take things further.

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