We’re fight­ing for your right to know

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - OPINION OURS & YOURS - ANNIKA SMETHURST

It is hard to over-em­pha­sise how un­usual it was to see the heads of ri­val me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions stand to­gether in Can­berra on Wednes­day calling for greater protection­s for the press. Jour­nal­ists are a com­pet­i­tive bunch and ri­valry among or­gan­i­sa­tions and re­porters is stan­dard. Beat­ing ri­val news or­gan­i­sa­tions to a story is re­warded and cul­ti­vat­ing sources as your own en­sures ex­clu­sive sto­ries.

But the re­cent po­lice raids on my home and the ABC changed the game. It was a water­shed mo­ment for press free­dom and saw foes unite.

For me, this was a wor­thy out­come from an over­whelm­ingly bad month. Hav­ing my home searched by seven po­lice of­fi­cers for seven hours was in­tim­i­dat­ing and felt like an in­va­sion of pri­vacy. I was even less com­fort­able hav­ing my un­der­wear drawer dis­cussed on talk­back ra­dio.

A hol­i­day to South-East Asia also failed to pro­vide an ad­e­quate hide-out. Footage of my home made the news in Sin­ga­pore while sev­eral Aus­tralian tourists recog­nised me in Viet­nam.

Yet, on Wednes­day, when a coali­tion of me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions came to­gether to lobby for re­forms, it fi­nally felt like it hadn’t been in vain.

Some have said it will be hard to con­vince the pub­lic jour­nal­ists need more protection­s at a time when pub­lic trust in the me­dia is at an all-time low.

But the six key changes the me­dia in­dus­try wants won’t put jour­nal­ists above the law. In fact, it’s not about giv­ing the me­dia more power. The fight for press

free­dom is about Aus­tralians and pro­tect­ing your right to know.

Pos­si­bly the most im­por­tant change we want is pro­tec­tion for whistle­blow­ers, the brave em­ploy­ees who see wrong­do­ing and refuse to turn a blind eye. In the days af­ter my home was raided, At­tor­ney­Gen­eral Chris­tian Porter said I was “not the tar­get of any po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions”, im­ply­ing the au­thor­i­ties were in­stead search­ing for the source of my story. As a jour­nal­ist it’s dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate the two. Com­ing af­ter my source is the same as com­ing af­ter me; the two are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked. Pub­lic sec­tor whistle­blow­ers must be pro­tected.

We also want changes to the way doc­u­ments can be stamped as se­cret. A min­is­ter re­cently told me he was of­ten shocked by the “top se­cret” doc­u­ments that landed on his desk, de­scrib­ing some of the ma­te­rial as “no more im­por­tant than a shop­ping list”.

Le­gal expert Bret Walker SC — a for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity leg­is­la­tion mon­i­tor — agrees. He has ar­gued that the gov­ern­ment can use the clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem to avoid pub­lic scru­tiny and em­bar­rass­ment. Stamp­ing doc­u­ments as “top se­cret” means the po­lice must in­ves­ti­gate when­ever ma­te­rial is dis­closed with­out au­tho­ri­sa­tion.

Ul­ti­mately, pub­lic ser­vants in­clud­ing politi­cians are em­ployed by tax­pay­ers and we all have a right to know what they are do­ing.

In my case, I re­ported on a plan to give more pow­ers to a spy agency. Should this change oc­cur, it will need to pass Par­lia­ment, which will in­volve a pub­lic de­bate.

The plan was al­ways go­ing to be made pub­lic, but ex­pos­ing it ahead of time caused po­lit­i­cal em­bar­rass­ment.

In a democ­racy, cit­i­zens have a right to know what gov­ern­ment is up to in its name.

Other changes that will de­crim­i­nalise jour­nal­ism and keep Aus­tralians in­formed in­clude chang­ing free­dom of in­for­ma­tion laws to im­prove trans­parency.

Aus­tralia’s defama­tion laws also need to be over­hauled as they over­whelm­ing pro­tect pow­er­ful peo­ple from scru­tiny and hin­der your right to know.

Jour­nal­ists are the con­duits of in­for­ma­tion in the pub­lic in­ter­est, and pub­lish­ing such in­for­ma­tion should not be a crim­i­nal of­fence.

Chang­ing the law is the only way to en­sure we have a free and fair press.

Pic­ture: Gary Ra­m­age

Annika Smethurst.

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