Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012
The restrictions were essentially a gag order, which prevented Wotton from engaging in his community and being interviewed by, or providing a statement to, the media. While the majority of the High Court did accept that such restrictions and prohibitions burdened the freedom of political communication, it upheld them as reasonable and necessary to serve other ends. Such a judgment is disappointing in its failure to take the opportunity to enhance our very limited protections for freedom of speech. That Wotton can be prevented from communicating with the media or engaging in public debate, demonstrates just how limited our rights to free speech really are.
Journalists and the criminal law The strong arm of the law was criticised as being too heavy-handed following the arrest of Ben Grubbs, a journalist with Fairfax, in May 2011. Ben Grubbs was arrested at a Gold Coast Online Security Conference for having received “tainted material”, that is, photos taken from Facebook that were used to demonstrate flaws in Facebook’s privacy settings. Grubbs was released after questioning, though his iPad was seized. Grubbs was also advised that the police would be making a complete copy of the information on his iPad – a real concern if any confidential information had been stored on the device. Had any charges been laid, Grubbs faced penalties of up to 20 years’ imprisonment. On another note, charges have been laid against journalist Rahni Sadler, of the Seven Network, and former lawyer Andrew Fraser for communicating with prisoner Bradley Murdoch. In July 2011, Seven broadcast a recorded phone conversation between the notorious prisoner and Fraser. The program, produced by Sadler, raised questions about Murdoch’s 2005 conviction for the murder of British backpacker Peter Falconio, and the abduction of Falconio’s girlfriend, Joanne Lees. Charges were laid by Correctional Services on the basis that Murdoch was interviewed without the consent of the executive director of the Northern Territory Corrective Services. The case was adjourned in the Darwin Magistrates Court on February 29, 2012 until April 4, 2012. This will be an interesting case to follow.
Shield laws and the protection of sources Welcome steps have been taken on both a federal and a state level to recognise that there are circumstances where a confidential source for journalists should be protected. Such legislation is completely justified in that it enables journalists to investigate and publish public interest stories which may otherwise be stymied by fear of prosecution. The federal parliament passed the Evidence Amendment (Journalists Privilege) Bill 2010 in March 2011, which aims to protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources. The Greens secured an amendment to extend the definition of “journalist” as “a person who is engaged and active in the publication of news”. Notably, this will likely extend the definition, and the protection, to bloggers, citizen journalists and others who disseminate news online.
Cartoon by Chris Slane
The Annual Media Alliance summary of press freedom issues in Australia