Public interest journalism is under attack on multiple fronts

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation is deeply concerned that the ability of journalists to hold governments and other powerful entities to account is under attack on multiple fronts.

The confluence of international trade negotiations, a series of “anti-terror” bills in the Federal Parliament, and structural problems in the Australian media industry pose a serious threat to the watchdog role of journalism.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation notes with concern that journalists could be prosecuted for revealing business secrets under the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, according to a draft recently published by Wikileaks (available here).

The draft agreement proposes the introduction of criminal penalties for unauthorised access to, misappropriation or disclosure of trade secrets, defined as information that has commercial value because it is secret, by any person using a computer system. There are no public interest or free speech exemptions.

According to Australian National University intellectual property law expert Dr Matthew Rimmer, moves to criminalise the disclosure of trade secrets could be used “by governments and companies against journalists, media organisations, whistleblowers, leakers, and civil activists, anyone who gets in the way of corporate and economic interests.”

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation also shares concerns that have been widely raised (see, for example, the submissions to a Parliamentary inquiry and this SMH report) about the impact of a series of law enforcement and intelligence gathering bills upon journalism’s fourth-estate capacity.

Concerns were also raised at the recent New News conference in Melbourne and by investigative journalist Kate McClymont in her recent Andrew Olle lecture, while journalism academic Professor Mark Pearson has described the laws as “the greatest attack on the Fourth Estate function of journalism in the modern era”.

A useful overview has been compiled by Paul Farrell at The Guardian, identifying the main areas of concern for journalism as:

1) Journalists and whistleblowers face jail for intelligence reporting
2) Computer hacking powers for intelligence agencies
3) Immunity from prosecution for uses of force by ASIO officers involved in “special intelligence operations”
4) Expanding detention without charge powers
5) Restricting freedom of movement and association with control orders and prohibited contact orders
6) Life imprisonment for people who fight, or even prepare to fight, overseas in a foreign country
7) Prohibiting travel to a region, or even an entire country, unless a person can demonstrate a legitimate reason for being there
8) Mandatory data retention of Australians web and mobile data for two years

The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy and independent journalist Wendy Bacon have highlighted the lack of mainstream media scrutiny of the bills, but it is significant that Lachlan Murdoch has since attacked the laws.

Murdoch, the co-chairman of 21st Century Fox and News Corp, contrasted Australia’s lack of constitutional protection of freedom of speech and the press with protections in the US. He said:

“Already we have literally hundreds of separate laws and regulations that currently govern the working press [in Australia].

Even a subset of these laws is entirely sufficient to govern how journalists work.

We certainly do not need further laws to jail journalists who responsibly learn and accurately tell.”

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation’s board member Wendy Bacon has compiled a detailed analysis of the bills (recommended reading), and argues that the community has generally not been well served by the media’s reporting to date.

It is of great concern that these profound global and national threats to journalism are coming at a time when the industry is ill-equipped to respond, given the lack of the diversity in the mainstream media industry, editorial cuts across many news organisations, and the precarious finances of new media organisations.

It is telling, for example, that the independent online publication New Matilda, recently faced legal proceedings related to two significant news stories that it broke: the publication of emails from University of Sydney academic Professor Barry Spur, and details of a scholarship granted to the Prime Minister’s daughter Frances Abbott by the Whitehouse Institute of Design.

As Crikey reported recently, the editor and publisher of New Matilda, Chris Graham, initially represented himself in court, before probono counsel was arranged. This case highlights the huge challenges that independent and small media outlets face in an era of increased government surveillance and control.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation is sending a copy of this statement to the relevant federal Ministers and other Parliamentary representatives. We encourage concerned citizens to also contact their elected representatives.