Attorney-General’s announcement provides cold comfort on press freedom

Attorney-General’s announcement provides cold comfort on press freedom

Journalists and whistleblowers will continue to face prosecution and jail time for revealing government misconduct and abuse, despite the Attorney-General’s announcement, warned the Human Rights Law Centre.

Yesterday the Attorney-General announced that he has instructed Commonwealth prosecutors to obtain his approval before charging journalists under some of Australia’s complex secrecy laws, in an apparent attempt to address the criticism of the Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) June 2019 raids of NewsCorp journalist Annika Smethurst and ABC’s head office in Sydney.

Emily Howie, a Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that the Attorney-General’s announcement barely addresses the press freedom issues raised by the raids. It won’t prohibit prosecution of journalists for public interest journalism, only require the Attorney-General’s consent to do so.

“Christian Porter is paying lip service to press freedom. A good Attorney-General would have taken this opportunity to completely protect and encourage journalists and whistleblowers to come forward with information about government abuses and wrongdoing,” said Ms Howie.

Importantly, the announcement does not provide any new safeguard for whistleblowers. In recent years whistleblowers have exposed the false pretences on which Australia has gone to war, police misconduct, corruption, the dangerously inadequate clean-up of nuclear waste, and the cruel treatment of asylum seekers in immigration detention. Witness K and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, are facing jail time for their role revealing that the Australian Government had bugged the Timor-Leste cabinet room to gain a strategic advantage during sensitive negotiations about oil and gas revenue.

“Australians have a right to know what the government is doing in their name, and people should be empowered to speak up when they see wrongdoing. Whistleblowers also play a critical role as sources in public interest journalism. Christian Porter’s announcement just tinkers at the edges on protections for journalists and does nothing to protect whistleblowers,’ said Ms Howie.

In August, Peter Dutton announced his directive to the AFP to take account of the importance of a free press before investigating journalists and media organisations for leaks of government information.

“The Morrison Government’s response to the raids so far has been wholly inadequate. Directives from Ministers do not protect brave whistleblowers, like Witness K, from serving jail time for exposing wrong-doing. It remains extremely dangerous for whistleblowers and journalists to reveal information in the public interest. It’s time for the Attorney-General to demonstrate that he cares about a free press and change laws to provide actual protection,” said Ms Howie.

Media contact:

Michelle Bennett, Communications Director: 0419 100 519