Media Release: Federal Court judgement confirms the need for a Media Freedom Act
In a major blow to press freedom in Australia, the Federal Court has ruled that the search warrants the Australian Federal Police used to raid the ABC last year were valid. The AJF believes the case underscores the urgent need for a Media Freedom Act, to protect the role of the press in keeping the government accountable.
While we acknowledge that the decision may have been technically in line with the law, it undermines one of the most important principles of our liberal democracy – the role of the media in acting as a vital whistle for those who see wrongdoing in government and its agencies.
The ABC launched its case, arguing that the search warrant ran counter to the implied right of political communication in our constitution. However, the fact that the right remains only ‘implied’, underscores how inherently weak that principle remains in our legal code. Whenever that implied right comes up against a clearly defined law, the law will almost always win out, regardless of the impact it might have on the ability of journalists to investigate governments or protect their sources.
In the case of the ABC raid, the AFP used a provision of the Defence Act, making it a criminal offence to receive stolen Commonwealth property. In defining information as ‘Commonwealth property’, the AFP and the court have radically expanded their powers to clamp down on any leak of information from within the government, regardless of what it might expose.
“We acknowledge the important role of the security agencies in protecting national security. In seeking to enforce the narrow letter of the law, however, they have undermined the media’s role in maintaining the health of our democracy, and as a result, made the entire system less transparent and less stable,” said Peter Greste, AJF Spokesperson.
In this case, the ABC published nothing that genuinely undermined national security, and yet it exposed a story that was clearly in the public interest. Anything that criminalises that kind of journalism damages our democracy.
Peter Greste said, “This is a powerful reminder of the need to write the principle of press freedom into the very DNA of our legal code, so that the courts have a clear obligation to take it into account whenever they deal with these kinds of cases.
“While a detailed overhaul of our national security legislation will help, it is unlikely to close every loophole. What we really need is a Media Freedom Act which the AJF has been calling for, for the past year. An MFA would firmly establish the principle of press freedom, and compel the courts to consider it in any case, regardless of whether or not there is a specific provision.”
The AJF promotes media freedom worldwide and the right of journalists to report the news in freedom and safety. This includes working with Australian governments to ensure legislation supports media freedom. We also campaign in the Asia–Pacific region, wherever journalists are censored, threatened, imprisoned or killed. When journalists are silenced, democracy and human rights suffer.
Professor Peter Greste is UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland.