On October 21, The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s most widely read newspaper, ran a heavily redacted memo on its front page. Below the memo read, “When government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering up?”
The exact same memo ran on the front page of both national newspapers, the Australian and the Australian Financial Review and on all major metropolitan newspapers, including the Age, the Herald Sun, the Daily Telegraph, the Courier Mail, the West Australian, the Advertiser, NT News, the Mercury, the Canberra Times, and on the digital homepage of the Guardian and countless other websites.
The evening before the papers hit the stands, major Australian broadcasters, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the Special Broadcasting Service, Channel Seven, Nine, Ten, and Sky News all ran televised advertisements criticizing government secrecy.
In one advertisement, viewers were told of the government’s refusal to disclose the aged care homes responsible for more than 4,000 reports of assaults of residents last year.
On any other day, many of these media outlets would be each other’s fiercest rival, but in a rare show of unity, Australian news organizations launched an unprecedented campaign seeking to combat a growing culture of secrecy that they say restricts journalists’ ability to hold the powerful to account.
The “Your Right to Know” campaign came after months of mounting tension between the media and the government following the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raid on the ABC over its reporting on Afghanistan, as well as on a News Corp journalist for reporting on a plan for government surveillance of citizens.
The campaign seeks to reform laws on Freedom of Information and the right to contest search warrants, introduce new restrictions on what information the government can deem secret as well expand protections for whistleblowers and apply exemptions to protect journalists from prosecution under a number of new national security laws.
George Williams, a constitutional lawyer and dean of the Law School at the University of NSW, has pointed to the no fewer than 75 sets of national security-related legislation which have been passed since September 11, 2001.
“Australia is the only democracy in the world that does not protect free speech and freedom of the press through a charter or bill of rights,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“There is no other country like us. One reason is we’ve just assumed Parliament would respect these rights. By and large they have in the past, but that’s no longer true.”
Whistleblower Richard Boyle has been charged with 66 offences and faces 161 years in jail for revealing how the Australian Taxation Office can seize funds from the bank accounts of taxpayers assessed to owe the ATO money, regardless of their personal circumstances.
David McBride, the whistleblower at the center of the Afghan Files, which subsequently led to the AFP raid on the ABC, is also facing charges and is in the first stage of the trial behind closed doors in Canberra.
“Unfortunately, there are too many people in Canberra who are afraid. Plenty of people knew what I knew, but no one else stood up,” he told reporters outside court several months ago.
Bernard Collaery, a barrister and former attorney general of the Australian Capital Territory who is facing jail time for helping to expose Australia’s bugging operation of Timor-Leste during the 2006 negotiations to carve up oil and gas resources, has said that the current system gave whistleblowers no real outlet to raise concerns.
In an interview with the Guardian, he said that whistleblowers were rarely shielded by whistleblower protections and the intelligence watchdog (IGIS) had been found lacking in its ability to protect those who made disclosures.
In anticipation of the October 21 campaign, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he believes in the rule of law and that no one is above it.
“The rule of law has to be applied evenly and fairly in protection of our broader freedoms, and so I don’t think anyone, I would hope, is looking for a leave pass on those things,” he said.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said last week that he is “seriously disinclined” to approve prosecution of journalists who have “done no more that pursue public interest journalism,” but also defended the government’s stance, saying the government was balancing the rights of a free press against other rights, including fair trials and non-vilification.
Porter has since intervened to support the Australian federal police in the high court case against News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst.
Australia’s main opposition party has backed the campaign.
In parliament, Senator Kristina Keneally shamed the Australian federal police commissioner Reece Kershaw. “Anything strike you as similar in all of these front pages,” she asked, while holding several papers up in parliament.
“Unlike the Morrison government, Labor believes in freedom of the press and the public’s right to know,” shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus wrote on Twitter.
Following the turbulent week of raids in early June, the New York Times published an editorial titled “Australia may well be the world’s most secretive democracy.”
Damian Cave, the author of the article, opined that Australia’s “aggressive approach fits with a global trend.”
“Democracies from the United States to the Philippines are increasingly targeting journalists to ferret out leaks, silence critics and punish information sharing — with President Trump leading the verbal charge by calling journalists ‘the enemy of the people.’
“But even among its peers, Australia stands out. No other developed democracy holds as tight to its secrets, experts say, and the raids are just the latest example of how far the country’s conservative government will go to scare officials and reporters into submission,” he wrote.
Jennifer Robinson, an Australian human rights lawyer and barrister, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald the day that the campaign launched that actions out of Canberra resemble those of an authoritarian regime.
“Australia has long been described as a liberal democracy. But we have a press freedom problem that raises genuine questions about whether we continue to deserve that title,” she wrote.