Freedom of the press is one of the foundational tenets of representative democracy. The fourth estate is crucial in keeping governments in check, exposing wrongdoing, and fighting for those unable to speak up for themselves. We rely on the instruments of the media to provide factual, representative information to the wider public. Without the discourse carried out by and in the press, those in power will never face true accountability. That’s precisely why it is so critical to protect the rights and freedoms of the members of the press to carry out their role in society.
But around the world, freedom of the press is under constant attack from those who would oppose freedom of information and eliminate the checks and balances provided by the fourth estate. Even in countries which proudly espouse the beliefs of liberal democracy, placing undue pressure on the media has become a successful tactic for gaining and retaining power. After all, when the media is strong, this can create the perception that they are even more threatening to those in power — resulting in an ever-worsening onslaught of attacks on the press. As a result, even a supposedly strong press must be defended vigorously.
Now is the time we must come to the defence of Australia’s press.
Police raids on media spark parliamentary report
Australian journalists have been left rattled by a series of AFP raids on journalists’ homes. However, a new report from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), Parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee, aims to put the brakes on such abuses of power.
The report was commissioned by the Federal Government after the AFP raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the headquarters of the ABC in retaliation for the publication of stories based on classified information.
In their report, the PJCIS has recommended that search warrants for journalists’ homes and offices should only be issued by senior judges. The PJCIS report also recommends a review of the ways in which national security legislation is applied to the classification of government documents, a response to concerns by journalists and other parties that documents are being classified when their contents may not merit classification.
The PJCIS report is a reassuring affirmation that all is not right with the recent raids — but not every recommendation made by the PJCIS is rosy or reassuring. The Right to Know Coalition, a group of Australian media organisations formed in response to the climate of fear and uncertainty instilled by the AFP raids and other recent events, had demanded the ability to contest search warrants on journalists and media organisation property before they’re executed — but the PJCIS dismissed this demand out of hand.
The committee did recommend expanding the role of public interest advocates — public lawyers and former judges appointed by the government to have input on whether search warrants are an appropriate course of action in a given situation. However, this would be a much weaker and less reassuring protection compared to the Right to Know Coalition’s demand to be able to proactively contest search warrants.
PJCIS report: A bittersweet step towards a stronger, safer press
The PJCIS’ recommendations are both a windfall and a warning. On the one hand, the report shows that all hope is not lost — government bodies are not afraid to go against the grain and call out inappropriate issuing and abuses of search warrants. But the lack of consideration given to the Right to Know Coalition’s demands shows that there is still a long fight ahead for the media to feel safe and secure in exercising the power of the fourth estate to keep the Australian people informed about the goings-on in government — classified or not.