Front pages of newspapers show a ‘Your right to know’ campaign, in Canberra. Lukas Coch/ Reuters
There has been a huge outcry and backlash from Australia’s major newspapers which blacked out their front pages on Monday to protest laws that crimp press freedom.
In a rare show of unity, the newspapers ran their front pages with heavily edited text, giving the impression that the copy had been censored by the authorities.
The objective was to pressure the government to exempt scribes from laws that restrict their access to sensitive information.
The issue came to a boil after police raided the head office of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in Sydney and the home of a journalist after they came under the government's radar on suspicion of receiving national secrets earlier this year.
The raids, which involved police examination of about 9,000 computer files at the ABC and sifting through the female News Corp editor’s innerwear drawer, drew international condemnation.
At the time, the ABC said the raid on its office was in relation to 2017 stories about accusations of military misconduct in Afghanistan. News Corp has said the raid on its employee concerned an article about government plans to spy on Australians’ emails, text messages and bank accounts.Parliament has long been passing laws in the guise of national security that impeded the public’s right to know what the government did in its name, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) said.
“Journalism is a fundamental pillar of our democracy,” said Paul Murphy, the chief executive of the industry union.
“It exists to scrutinise the powerful, shine a light on wrongdoing and hold governments to account, but the Australian public is being kept in the dark,” he said in a statement.Communications Minister Paul Fletcher did not immediately respond to questions on Monday. The government has previously said press freedom was a “bedrock principle.”
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese told reporters that while journalists should not be prosecuted for doing their jobs, defamation laws provided a “good constraint on ensuring that there is some level of accuracy.”
The campaign for media freedom is a rare moment of unity in Australia’s tightly-held sector, where media houses compete vigorously for advertising spend and offer very different visions for the country. Global attention turned to media freedoms in Australia early this year when a court order prevented media from reporting that the former Vatican treasurer, Cardinal George Pell, had been found guilty on child sex abuse charges.
Some Australian outlets reported that an unidentified person had been convicted but some foreign media companies identified Pell because they were outside Australia’s jurisdiction.
Prosecutors are now seeking fines and jail sentences for three dozen Australian journalists and publishers for their trial coverage. Pell is appealing against his convictions.
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