The two raids by squads of Australian Federal Police officers on Wednesday sounded horribly familiar.

This piece originally published in the Daily Telegraph.

Images of them pushing their way into the offices of the ABC and the home of Daily Telegraph journalist Annika Smethurst, warrant in hand, riffling through personal belongings in a search for evidence recalled a night in Cairo in December, 2013 that I can never forget.

Back then, I was working on my own stories about the turmoil in Egyptian politics as rival groups struggled for control of the government. National intelligence agents (Egypt’s equivalent of the AFP) forced their way into my hotel room, as well as the room of my colleague Mohamed Fahmy and the home of another, Baher Mohammed. They ransacked our belongings, gathering up anything that might contain evidence – our notebooks, laptops, cameras, and audio recorders – and marched us off to prison.

In the subsequent interrogations, we were told of the charges: colluding with terrorists, being members of a terrorist organization, financing terrorism and broadcasting false news with intent to undermine national security.

We had been doing no such things of course. Instead, we had been doing what any responsible journalist would have done. We were covering the unfolding political drama, taking care to fulfil our professional responsibilities by talking to all parties to the conflict.

The work might have been uncomfortable to the government, but we felt we had a professional obligation to report with integrity.

At the time, Egypt had come to define “national security” so broadly that anything that questioned, challenged or interrogated the government or its inner workings was considered tantamount to treason and prosecuted harshly.

That’s why the AFP raids sent a familiar shiver down my spine.

This is not to suggest that Australia is about to become Egypt any time soon, but countries, and a host of other nations around the world, are being driven by the same political imperative – a troubling tendency to introduce broadly defined national security laws that either intentionally or inadvertently undermine press freedom, one of the most fundamental principles of a functioning democracy.

Nobody is suggesting that the media should have unfettered access to everything. Clearly civil servants need to be able to do their work in the reasonable expectation that it not be aired in public. The private information of individuals needs to remain confidential, and security services have to be able to maintain operational secrecy.

Nor am I suggesting that national security laws should be repealed. In a dangerous world plagued by terrorism and threats from foreign powers, we have to make sure our agencies have the tools they need to keep us safe. But if the aim of our laws is to protect us and our way of life, then surely it makes sense to preserve one of the key pillars of our democracy; one that has made us one of the safest, most prosperous and stable countries on the planet.

Press freedom is not a flawless system. Journalism is a human construct and like anything created by humans, it is messy, imperfect and sometimes even downright undignified. But the evidence shows that having a free press with a legally protected capacity to interrogate government and expose wrongdoing, corruption and the abuse of power inevitably leads to better outcomes.

In this newspaper yesterday, my colleague Peter Wilkinson laid out the case for a Media Freedom Act that our organization, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, is proposing. We believe that the act finds a better way of striking the balance between those two key imperatives – the need to protect national security and secret government information on the one hand, and the public’s right to know on the other.

In a way though, the focus on journalists is to miss the fundamental point.

The media is the means by which information flows through a democratic society, so that all of us – the voters and tax payers for whom the government works – can participate in public debate and make informed choices.

We can’t do that if key information about what the government is up to is shrouded in secrecy.

This debate is about protecting the public’s right to know, and ensuring the transparency and accountability that keeps government efficient, honest and effective.

 

Professor Peter Greste is spokesperson for The Alliance of Journalists’ Freedom and UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland

 

Media: Olivia Pirie-Griffiths, [email protected], 0400 716 181
Photo credit: Daily Telegraph