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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Strong media voices speak up about freedom issues including the backsliding on Freedom of information.

Independently of Right to Know day or week - now there's a missed opportunity - Australian media organisations and journalists are finding new strong voice about freedom of speech,  press freedom and related issues, decrying poor efforts to speak up as the wave of national security laws washed through and freedom of information went backwards in the last few years.

The chair of the Australian Press Council Professor David Weisbrot said laws proposed as a counterterrorism measure threatened the ­future of investigative journalism and must be revisited. He told The Australian the council had an important advocacy role, a role for a long time left to the publishers:
“My view is that the issues are so central to all of our constituency, our readers and the newspapers, that we need to be involved and we can do that because if The Australian or the Tele or the Herald argues about these things, many people will see that as self-interested, whereas The Press Council, when we speak we’re representing the broader community and we’re more at arm’s length than an individual publisher is.”
And the doyen of the Canberra Press Gallery Laurie Oakes in his address (pdf courtesy MEAA) to the Melbourne Press Freedom Dinner blamed government for the intrusions and journalists and media organisations including those publishers for complacency as the screw turned.

Oakes said 
"it’s.. incumbent on journalists and publishers and broadcasters to fight the press freedom side of the argument. It’s not going to be given due weight by governments of any stripe otherwise.”
Oakes included in his list of issues that journalists in the main have ignored, Freedom of Information backsliding under successive governments,culminating in the attempt to abolish the Office of Australian Information Commissioner, and Australia's lack of interest and enthusiasm for the Open Government Partnership.
 (Press freedom is) not going to be given due weight by governments of any stripe otherwise. I repeat, press freedom,transparency etc. are rarely high on their list of priorities.

You can see that from what’s happened with the Freedom of Information system. There’s been a steady retreat by politicians and bureaucrats from the freer flow of information that briefly gave cause for optimism following John Faulkner’s reforms in 2009 and 2010. The retreat started under the Labor government. And it had nothing to do with security merely old habits reasserting themselves.

John Faulkner as Special Minister of State was a true believer in government transparency, and introduced reforms to the FOI system that unequivocally conveyed a presumption in favour of disclosure. When Faulkner went, so did enthusiasm for his approach.
A key reform was the appointment of an Australian Information Commissioner to review access refusals, publish FOI guidelines for agencies to follow, and act as a kind of champion of open government. We get an idea of what happened to that from a 2013 paper by Professor John McMillan, the first Information Commissioner and, in any meaningful respect, the last one as well.

When an event was organized to mark the 30th anniversary of FOI in Australia, no minister attended or made any contribution. Legislation to entirely exempt the Parliamentary Departments from the FOI Act was rushed through Parliament, even though this was contrary to a submission from those departments. The Government stopped responding to key reports from the Information Commissioner. It ignored a suggestion that ministerial appointment diaries be published on the web. Australia did not join the International Open Government Partnership formed in September 2011 and which now has 64 member countries. And so on.

And when the coalition came to office? It announced the abolition of the Office of the Information Commissioner in its first Budget. The senate blocked that, so the government effectively defunded the office. McMillan, largely stripped of staff, spent his last eight months in the job working from home. A disgrace.

And the media were pretty much silent throughout.

The welcome mat is out if these issues are given new prominence in media circles.

Professor Weisbrot and Oakes both are guardedly optimistic about the arrival of Malcolm Turnbull - so is Open and Shut - but regardless, media organisations and journalists should be reaching out to others in the broad community who share these interests to establish a formal or informal coalition to argue the case and seek to safeguard freedom of speech, press freedom and transparent, open government. 

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