Tipping point for press freedom

Professor Peter Greste, Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh and Dr Richard Murray.

Professor Peter Greste, Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh and Dr Richard Murray from the Press Freedom Policy Papers project.

Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh and Dr Richard Murray from the Press Freedom Policy Press project.

From the Fitzgerald Inquiry to the Nauru Files, journalists (and their sources) have exposed individual, corporate and government misconduct for decades. 

The notion of a free, independent press holding powerful institutions to account is a given – something most Australians take for granted.

But in June 2019, press freedom became a hot topic when the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC’s Sydney headquarters.

The initial raid followed Ms Smethurst’s 2018 article on the Australian Government’s plans to expand its surveillance powers. The ABC raid took place the next day in connection with the 2017 Afghan Files report – a set of Australian Defence Force documents leaked to the ABC by whistleblower David McBride about alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

Recently tightened national security laws were behind the AFP raids: specifically, laws that made it a criminal offence for journalists to handle classified intelligence or military documents.

In both cases, the journalists involved were subject to lengthy AFP investigations – until last year, when the AFP ruled out prosecution. Mr McBride is still awaiting trial, charged with five offences related to national security.

The University of Queensland Law School’s Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh said the raids were a “tipping point” for Australia.

“That was the point when the nation realised that press freedom – the capacity for the press to do its job – was under threat,” Dr Ananian-Welsh said.

“The public began to understand that national security law could be used to silence the press by targeting whistleblowers or even by prosecuting journalists directly.

“This is a serious concern given the importance of press freedom for free speech, the rule of law, democracy and Australia’s right to know, to name but a few reasons.”

Alongside UQ colleagues Professor Peter Greste and Dr Richard Murray, Dr Ananian-Welsh leads the Press Freedom Policy Papers project. Research assistants on the project include UQ Law School PhD candidate Sarah Kendall. 

The papers make evidence-based recommendations for widespread reform in Australian law in areas such as espionage, whistleblowing, shield laws and free speech as they affect the media.

Dr Ananian-Welsh and Professor Greste first began exploring the intersection between national security and press freedom in 2018.

In 2019, new research showed Australia had introduced at least 82 separate pieces of anti-terrorism legislation since September 11, 2001 – far exceeding any other country.

“We mapped these laws for their impact and found that many provisions have the potential to criminalise legitimate, good-faith journalism,” Dr Ananian-Welsh said.

“For example, Australia’s new espionage laws criminalise a wide range of conduct which involves ‘dealing’ with information for the purpose of communicating it to a ‘foreign principal’.

“But journalists communicate to ‘foreign principals’ every time they publish a story to the world at large.

“Another way press freedom is threatened is by targeting journalists' sources. For example, many whistleblowers could face prosecution for speaking to a journalist, even if they’re revealing gross misconduct or information that’s in the public interest.

An image of Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh reading Press Freedom policy papers.
An image of Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh.

Professor Greste – an award-winning foreign correspondent – has been a fierce advocate for press freedom since spending 13 months in an Egyptian prison for reporting news that was “damaging to national security”.

He said he could draw parallels between his experience in Egypt and Australia’s national security laws.  

“Since 9/11, governments have tended to use terrorism as a catch-all excuse for passing national security laws that are, frankly, draconian."
Professor Peter Greste

“What I saw in Egypt was a government passing loosely framed national security legislation that, on the face of it, made sense.

“However, the government used that flexibility to silence what was nothing more than politically uncomfortable journalism.

“I’m not suggesting that Australia is about to become Egypt anytime soon, but we’re being nudged in the same direction by the same kinds of political forces.

“What the AFP raids did was put flesh on those bones; they made it very clear that our concerns weren't just abstractions, they were real problems with serious consequences for journalists and the public they write for.”

Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh and Professor Peter Greste.

Following the raids, Australia dropped to 26th out of 180 countries in the RSF World Press Freedom Index.

As it stands, Dr Ananian-Welsh said Australia was the only Western liberal democracy without a national Bill or Charter of Human Rights to protect press freedom.

“Broadly speaking, press freedom is simply not acknowledged anywhere in Australian law. And this is a major problem."
Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh

So far, the research team has published four policy papers – a background briefing on the 2019 AFP raids, and three reform briefings on espionage, whistleblowing and Australian shield laws.

Future topics will include press freedom in rural and regional Australia, closed courts, and a series on ‘who is a journalist?’ – but the researchers say the possibilities are endless.

Each policy paper draws from parallel academic research papers  that are also due for publication this year.

With the release of each new paper, the research team hopes to generate awareness, policy debate and, eventually, law reform.

“We’re aiming to get policymakers, the broader public and the industry to seriously consider the implications of these laws and the effect they have on journalism,” Professor Greste said.

“Because we’re not actively throwing journalists in prison, and because you see criticism of the government in the news, it looks and feels as though we have a pretty free press.

“But our research has shown that these laws have an insidious chilling effect on public-interest journalism and whistleblowing.

“It’s hard to quantify the stories that aren’t told, but if the freedom of the press to interrogate the inner workings of government is eroded, then democracy is undermined, and that's what we would like to see change.”

Outside of the policy papers, the researchers have already made progress in this arena. Their advocacy and submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) and the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications (SSCEC) – convened following the AFP raids – played a central role in the PJCIS committee’s report and recommendations, released last year. The SSCEC report is forthcoming.

An image of Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh and Professor Peter Greste.

Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh and Professor Peter Greste.

Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh and Professor Peter Greste.

Find out more about Press Freedom Policy Papers

Press Freedom Policy Papers.

Press Freedom Policy Papers.

Press Freedom Policy Papers.

The 2019 AFP raids on Australian journalists – The AFP raids have become a focal point for debate concerning the recognition, protection and health of press freedom in Australia. This policy paper provides a background to those raids and considers their legal and political consequences.

Espionage and press freedom in Australia – An overview of Australia’s espionage laws, explaining their impact on media and identifying law reform options to protect national security without unduly undermining press freedom.

Whistleblowing to the media – This policy paper summarises and critiques the avenues by which a public sector worker may make a protected disclosure of information to the media.

Reforming Australian shield laws – An overview of the current state of Australian shield laws, with reform recommendations to better protect source confidentiality and press freedom, without unduly compromising the public interest in law enforcement.