Australia

Press freedom put on alert by 'unlikely coalition of the willing'

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ABC managing director David Anderson, Nine chief executive Hugh Marks and News Corp Australia chairman Michael Miller have urged action on protecting press freedom.

Addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, three media bosses united in solidarity, pushing for new laws to protect journalists and whistle-blowers in the aftermath of police raids targeting press freedom.

In a rare show of unity, ABC managing director David Anderson, Nine chief executive Hugh Marks and News Corp Australia chairman Michael Miller came together at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday to press their case.

Michael Miller
News Corp executive chairman Michael Miller speaks during the National Press Club panel discussion.
AAP

"There are three news organisations here today but all of Australia's media companies, the journalists' union, the industry associations, are all united in our demand for change," Mr Miller said.

"We call upon the government to amend a number of existing laws to protect the public's right to know."

A series of raids on media organisations took place across early June.

News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s house was targeted regarding publication of a leaked plan to allow government spying on Australians and the ABC’s Sydney Offices were also raided, with officers searching for information in relation to a story known as the Afghan Files.

ABC Managing Director David Anderson said the gathering was "an unlikely coalition of the willing".

“Issues of national importance, issues core to our democracy, informed electorate, holding the powerful to account, shining a light into dark places,” he said. 

Mr Miller delivered a five-point plan for change. 

“We call upon the government to amend a number of existing laws to protect the public’s right to know, first we demand the right to contest any kind of search warrant on journalists or news organisations before the warrant is issued,” Mr Miller said.

“Second, public sector whistle blowers must be adequately protected and the laws need to change.

"Third, we need a new regime which limits which documents can be marked as secret; fourth we need a proper review of the freedom of information laws.

"And finally, journalists must be exempt from the national security laws enacted over the last seven years that can put them into jail just for doing their jobs.” 

Two Australian federal Police officers walk out of the main entrance to the ABC building located at Ultimo in Sydney.
Two Australian federal Police officers walk out of the main entrance to the ABC building located at Ultimo in Sydney.
AAP

The pitfalls of an uncensored press is a concern former Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste knows all too well.

Jailed in Egypt for more than 400 days, the veteran foreign correspondent has since become a staunch campaigner for press freedom

“Press Freedom is one of the most fundamental parts of our democracy; it underpins the very system that's kept us as one of the safest and most prosperous places on the planet for so long,” Mr Greste told SBS News.

“We only have an inferred or implied right of political communication and I don't think that's really good enough because it doesn't really stop legislators from framing legislation, from drafting laws that undermine press freedom and undermine whistle blower protections so what we really need is something like a media freedom act.”

Due to a lack of media protections, Nine chief executive Hugh Marks says many stories miss out on being published.

“The challenge is, you have good journalists who know they’re sitting on stories that are worthy of publication, that are in the public interest but we’re always just going through that filter process,” Mr Marks said.

President of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties Pauline Wright believes it is imperative that a legal framework of protection is afforded to journalists, publishers and whistle blowers alike.

“If we can’t have a federal charter of rights which would be the best thing, the most powerful thing to protect various rights like freedom of speech and the right to disclose in the public interest,” Ms Wright told SBS News.

“You would want to have a strong and powerful whistle blower act in Australia which was actually an overriding, overarching,  piece of legislation that protects people who do blow the whistle in the public interest and for those who publish in the public interest as well.

As the ABC and Newscorp take the AFP raids case to court, the challenge could prove to be a landmark challenge for press freedom.

But as it stands, Ms Wright says “protections are quite weak”.

“The basis on which they are being prosecuted relies on them being in the national security and under the public interest disclosure act you are not protected from blowing the whistle if it’s in relation to a national security issue.”

News Corp Executive Chariman Michael Miller, Nine Chief Executive Officer Hugh Marks and Managing Director ABC David Anderson at the National Press Club.
News Corp Executive Chariman Michael Miller, Nine Chief Executive Officer Hugh Marks and Managing Director ABC David Anderson at the National Press Club.
AAP

Calling on the government to enact change and protection, the management bosses stand unanimous in their determination to stop media silence.

“This is an area where someone, probably in the government needs to stand up and embrace the fact that as a free society we shouldn’t fear freedom of information or freedom of the press and ultimately if you are really going to make change it requires that sort of statement," Mr Marks said.

Mr Miller echoed this sentiment.

"Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said, if there is evidence for a need for press freedom, then he is open to it," Mr Miller said.

SBS managing director James Taylor supported the calls for protecting press freedom. 

"It's important that we stand side by side with our media colleagues to really discuss and describe the importance of a free press, the importance of public interest journalism," he said. 

- with AAP

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