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Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012

Under the proposal put forward by the Law Commission, print media would lose their current system of self-regulation. In practice, though, the new independent regulator should not impinge on the freedoms newspapers currently enjoy. And broadcasters, who currently do come under a statutory regime, would be in a much better position. The union also argued that the involvement of working journalists – as distinct from proprietors, managers and editors – must be an essential part of the competence and independence sought by the Commission for the new regulator. This applies not only to representation on the regulatory body, but also to the appointment process. While there is much to admire in the Commission’s report, the debate is only just beginning. Journalists will have to keep a watchful eye to ensure the Commission’s commitment to an independent regulator – one which strengthens press freedoms and enhances the status of the news media – is borne out by what finally becomes law. Brent Edwards is the convener of the EPMU’s Print and Media Council

NZ’s media under attack Labour MP David Parker lists some worrying erosions of press freedom and independence in New Zealand Media freedoms are absolutely essential to the long-term health of any democracy. New Zealand is no exception. But the freedom and independence of the fourth estate, considered to be the cornerstone of civil liberties, are being undermined in New Zealand. Production orders and examination orders override the normal right to silence. The production order used by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) against The National Business Review (NBR) demanded that NBR give up its records, including sources, from its inquiry into the 2010 collapse of South Canterbury Finance, one of New Zealand’s largest finance companies. That collapse cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, due to the government’s retail deposit guarantee. The huge losses led to allegations of improper behaviour by directors of South Canterbury Finance. Serious questions were also raised about government and Treasury incompetence, as they had allowed the size of that risk to grow by hundreds of millions after the Crown guarantee was granted at the time of the GFC. The government had also rejected alternative ways of solving the problem. Handled differently, tens – if not hundreds of millions – may have been saved. NBR was right to inquire into what had gone wrong. The SFO interference in the NBR proved beyond doubt that the SFO powers are excessive and undermine the important role of a free media. It issued its order against the NBR by internal administrative action, with no outside oversight. It did not have to get a warrant from a judge. Yet even the Security Intelligence Service has judicial oversight! Refusal by the media to comply with an order from the SFO put the journalist and the media company automatically in breach of the law, and at risk of criminal prosecution and fines. In contrast, police investigating organised crime must get a warrant from a judge, which may be declined. For the police, any disputed records are to be secured and held by the High Court. A High Court judge then decides if the protection of media freedom means the media records and sources should remain confidential. But what happens in the case of the SFO? The SFO simply keeps any records it takes. The fact that none of these protections exist for the SFO is plainly wrong. The SFO’s abuse of its powers in its dealings with the NBR clearly shows that its empowering legislation needs to be tightened by parliament. It is abhorrent that media sources are at risk, because this undermines the media’s ability to do what society needs them to do – show up incompetence or corruption.  If the media are not free of undue intrusion by state agencies, they cannot do what the fourth estate is meant to do. If journalists’ sources are at risk of exposure, they clam up and will not make the disclosures needed by the media to do its job. Like all politicians I sometimes bridle at criticisms which are ill-founded, harsh, superficial or unfair. When that happens I do not like it, but I will always defend the right of the media to investigate and criticise without fear or favour, because my sensitivities are less important than the freedom of the media.  We must fiercely defend that right, because informing the public of bungling or corruption

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2012 Press Freedom Report  

The Annual Media Alliance summary of press freedom issues in Australia