Government resists media heads’ call to act on press freedom


“Change needs to happen and needs to happen now ,” ABC managing director David Anderson said on Wednesday.

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The outlets want the right to contest search warrants before they are executed, with an independent third party deciding whether the public interest is best served by authorities obtaining the desired information or by journalists keeping it confidential.

They want stronger legal protections for whistleblowers who disclose secret government information in the public interest, and exemptions for journalism from various pieces of national security legislation.

Also on the list are recommendations for a stricter approach to government documents being classified as secret and a review of freedom of information laws to ensure they are not shutting down public scrutiny.

The companies have also renewed calls for Australia’s patchwork of defamation laws to be revised to keep up with the rapid changes of the digital era and protect public interest journalism. A review by state and territory governments is currently considering changes.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not decided on a course of action in response to the media outlets’ concerns. Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and Attorney-General Christian Porter are examining specific proposals.

News Corp journalist Annika Smethust, whose home was raided by federal police. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

A spokesman for Mr Fletcher said the government wanted more detail on the proposed changes and “the analysis underpinning the suggestions”.

“If there is a suggestion, evidence or analysis that reveals that there is a need for further improvement of the laws, the government is open to considering that. However, it is important to proceed calmly and consultatively in respect of any changes,” the spokesman said.

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Mr Anderson said there were more complicated areas that would need longer term consideration but urged immediate change on some key issues.

The “Australia’s Right to Know” coalition is set to mount a major lobbying effort to convince Mr Morrison of the need for change and, crucially, to ensure the public agrees.

Nine chief executive Hugh Marks said the companies needed to ensure regular people felt press freedom was a personal issue and that, without it, they would lose their right to make informed decisions.

“The Australian public’s right to know makes our democracy function. It’s paramount. Full stop,” he said.

The executives said a fundamental shift was needed to prioritise openness above a “twisted” attitude of secrecy.

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller said: “Too many people who frame policy, write laws, control information and conduct court hearings have stopped believing that the public’s right to know comes first.”

Labor home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally said the government was ignoring serious concerns.

“When it comes to a basic tenet of our democracy – a free press – it is up to the government to show leadership and to demonstrate in word and deed that freedom of the press is a right Australians can rely on under a Morrison government,” she said.

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