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Challenges for the press and freedom

Friday, May 04, 2007

This is an edited transcript of the speech given by Australian Press Council member, Chris McLeod to a Fiji Media Council-sponsored seminar at the University of the South Pacific last night on World Media Freedom Day. The theme of the day was Media Freedom in a State of Emergency.

FOR those not familiar with the work of the Australian Press Council I will summarise it this way it is a self-regulatory body for the Australian Press, comprising public members, publisher members and journalist members.

We have two main focuses preservation of press freedom and the responsible conduct of the press. Both functions have a common aim keeping regulation out of the press.

In many parts of the world today, the press finds itself increasingly the subject of censorship, regulation and even direct attack.

The war on terror has been largely responsible for clamps on the press that have been unprecedented in the Western world. From the smallest developing nations through to long-established democracies such as Australia, the press faces more and more challenges to perform its basic task of providing information to the population.

This might signal a number of things maybe that the press has become a thorn in the side of many governments and political leaders.

But it might also signal that many governments and political leaders do not understand the role of the free press and their own obligation to see that their citizens have access to diversity of views and opinions, whether they are receiving them or expressing them.

The Australian Press is thought in many countries to be the shining light of press freedom. But on the world press freedom rankings produced by the Freedom House organisation for countries with a population of more than 1 million people, Australia ranked 18th for press freedom and eighth for democracy.

Why is there such discrepancy between the democracy ranking and the press freedom ranking?

Consider this situation. Two journalists on my newspaper in Melbourne are awaiting sentence on a contempt of court charge over their refusal to name the source of material they published in a story that embarrassed the Federal Government. They wrote a story saying that the Government had backed down on a pledge to implement the recommendations made in a study of benefits available to war veterans. The Government was trying to put a positive spin on what it was doing by saying how wonderful it was that a few of the recommendations were going to be implemented, omitting to tell the public that it had changed its mind about a majority of the recommendations.

The truth of what the government was up to was revealed by the two journalists, Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus. Police were called in to find out how the journalists got their information. This was apparently deemed more important than explaining why there had been a backdown. Eventually a public servant was charged under the Commonwealth criminal code for leaking information.

The two journalists were subpoenaed to give evidence and when they refused to name their sources, they too were charged, with contempt of court. They had undertaken to their sources not to reveal them.

The journalists had little choice but to plead guilty for refusing the judges direction that they name names. Their plea is in and they are awaiting sentence, which could include a prison term.

We had the bizarre situation of the government intervening in the case to recommend the charges laid by government prosecutors not be proceeded with. Clearly the government couldnt actually direct that the charges be dropped because it regards its prosecution arm as independent. But it appears to have little respect for the independence of journalists, by pursuing them in the first place.

And just as clearly it recognises that jailing journalists for exposing the truth of government policy will not win itself many friends in the wider community. Thats why it has intervened in its own prosecution to ask the court to let them off.

And so we wait for the sentence to be handed down. Theres also a wider issue here of protection for whistleblowers. Whether the public servant who was charged had anything to do with this case or not doesnt really matter. Whoever the leaker was, he or she believed, he or she was acting in the public interest by revealing government dishonesty. Yet he or she too could have gone to jail.

This isnt an isolated case by the way. Despite much talk, no government in Australia has moved to shore up the right of journalists to protect the identity of their sources.

So perhaps Australia doesnt value freedom of speech and press freedom as much as many might think. And whats the consequence for the public if journalists are going to be intimidated by threats of jail?

Justice Douglas of the US Supreme Court summed it up this way:

A reporter is not better than his source of information ... Unless he has a privilege to withhold the identity of his source, he will be the victim of governmental intrigue or aggression ... The reporters main function ... then will be to pass on to public the press releases which the various departments of government issue."

All the examples I have given from Australia had nothing to do with security issues, the war on terrorism or a natural disaster. They were about illegal activity and allegations of corruption, the very things the public should know about.

Another reason for Australias poor showing in the press freedom stakes is its approach to Freedom of Information laws.

These laws, enacted by the Commonwealth and the states are supposedly designed to allow the public to information about how government conducts itself and arrives at decision.

Yet we find more and more that various discretionary provisions relating to privacy and cabinet secrets are used to block access.

I understand Fiji has been looking at the introduction of Freedom of Information laws.

I would urge Fijians to take this seriously and if it is to work for the betterment of all the authorities need to consult with the press and the public to find out just what expectations they have.

Even though there have been cases of physical intimidation of journalists in Australia, our journalists are not exposed to the same levels of violence as in some parts of the world.

While it takes great courage to publish a story knowing that you might be facing a jail term for doing so, you cant help but admire the courage of journalists in parts of the world where their lives may be at stake, where they have guns pointed at them and where they may even been executed for simply being a journalist.

Thats the price journalists working for independent media sometimes have to pay when theres a lack of recognition and respect for the role of the press and journalists where the rule becomes: shoot the messenger if you dont like the message.

It takes great courage to stand up to those who might intimidate the free press. And today on World Press Freedom Day we should reflect on the lives that have been lost in the line of duty. Lets first think about the role of the press. How can we define it?

The great American leader Thomas Jefferson said: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter".

And renowned US broadcast journalist Edward R Murrow: "Most of us probably feel we couldnt be free without newspapers, and that is the real reason we want the newspapers to be free".

And finally, Lord Northcliffe: "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress, all the rest is advertising".

The press should never be an arm of government. Nor should the press or journalists ever be licensed by government or any authority that can dictate what can be reported.

Press freedom is not about the press being able to run rampant, publishing whatever half-truths, gossip and rumour it likes. It is about the freedom of the public to be informed and attacks on press freedom are attacks on the public at large.

Christopher Walker writing for Freedom House reported that OECD analysis identified the lack of press freedom as one of the key factors enabling corruption in resource-based economies.

Crackdowns on the news media are not uncommon anywhere around the world.

They usually reflect fear by the authorities that the press will turn the people against them.

There are circumstances where governments can appear to justify control over media activity declarations of war, imposition of martial law and states of emergency during such things as natural disasters among them.

Clearly governments must take such action it deems necessary to protect its citizens. But the press is often heard to ask, why does protection of citizens so often involve clamps on the media when clearly the media is closer to the citizens than are many governments.

An independent media that is accountable to its audience and observes codes of conduct to ensure fair and balanced reporting can be an agent of stability in times of crisis. That isnt of course to say that journalists and the press should be above the law. And Im not denying the press makes mistakes. Generally mistakes based in fact occur because journalists have not been told the complete story.

They do after all rely heavily on what they were told, which necessitates them verifying allegations and statement of fact as best they can in the circumstances. For this they rely on official information thats accurate and the honestly held opinions of those they ask for comment.

But it is unreasonable for professional journalists to bear the brunt of repercussions for mistakes that come about in this way. Legislation and regulation must recognise the special part the press plays in society.

A free press is the cornerstone of democracy thats been said often. But it has clear meaning the press on behalf of the community it serves has a watchdog role. It informs the public of decisions and actions that affect the public. It provides the public with a means of expressing its opinions. It asks those in power and authority the questions members of the public would like to ask. It tries to gather information that members of the public need to have before they may the important decisions in their lives.

Of course, every government in every country will make decisions that it would rather the public didnt know about. But if those decisions affect the public then the publics right to be informed must take precedence. Clamps on the press during times of crises almost always sharply increase the threat and fear of violence.

Will citizens come under attack in they breach curfews and other aspects or emergency rule?

What freedoms will be curtailed?

And will there be violent conflict either by aggression from those who assume supreme power and authority or by those who rise up against such authority?

While a crackdown on the press poses dangers to journalists it can also pose a danger for those in authority.

The public, denied independent information, would feel excluded from the governmental process that affects their lives.

So what if the press is silenced?

Who would provide information to the public about potential danger, health alerts, changes to laws and regulations? Even weather details? What would members of the public discuss amongst themselves in the absence of any news? What would happen to the level of trust in authority?

I would suggest that without the press functioning to report the news, corruption would be come rife; rebellion would grow; false rumour and gossip would abound; panic would take over and ultimately society would collapse into anarchy.

These effects probably would not be immediate, but the longer people were kept in the dark the more likely it is that theyd eventuate. No leadership of any country would want that to be the outcome.

Surely any government or regime that allows the press and its journalists to do their job unfettered is going to win the respect of its constituents and enjoy their support more than they would if tight controls and censorship are imposed on the media and the public.

Silencing opposition may have a short term attraction but censorship and intimidation of the press is no way to convey to the general public that positive outcomes are possible no matter what the emergency.

The ability to communicate with the public remains central to any leaderships ambitions for its country. A spirit of co-operation between the leadership and the press, and mutual respect for each others role in society is the only way forward, the only way any society can stand up in the eyes of the world. Yet what do we see in some countries where there is a state of emergency or a declaration of martial law? We see intimidation of the press.

I go to Zimbabwe for an example.

This is the name of a Bill introduced in 2000: Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill. It sounds like legislation that might actually promote press freedom the ability of the public to be informed, balanced against the right to privacy. But what did it do in reality?

In recommending the Bill, the department of Information and Publicity said the media should be accountable to society and has to be judged on how well they were conveying messages without distortions or interfering with the right to freedom of expression given to the people in the constitution.

That sounds just about right, doesnt it?

But it isnt necessarily what was meant.

To give you some idea: General Vitalis Zvinavashe on January 10, 2002, warned independent and foreign correspondents of dire consequences if they continued to report negatively about the Zimbabwe government, human right abuses and happenings in the security forces.

Thats intimidation and you have to ask that if there is a commitment to free speech and freedom of the press why was such a statement made?

The question for the press is: could you in fact report positively on these issues?

Should they be reported at all in other words should the world at large, let alone the local populous know that there may be negative aspects to the situation in Zimbabwe?

Can critical study be stifled by such warnings the Australian cricket team at the moment is considering whether to pull out of their scheduled tour of Zimbabwe in a few moths time so the question has to be asked if the media isnt reporting negative aspects of the situation in Zimbabwe how did the Australian cricket team come to be reconsidering their tour?

The answer is that a silenced or even censored press wont stop the truth from getting out somewhere.

Governments must recognise the role the press has to play and facilitate the ability of the press to fulfil that role. A fully informed population makes democracy work.

The global village has shrunk tremendously. Where once the world at large may have relied on spies and espionage, things such as satellite communication, mobile phones, the internet and the number of people who travel around the world make it impossible for anyone to completely control the flow of information.

So any leadership of any country that has internal strife or even a natural disaster has to decide: what is the priority?

Yes, the stability of any country remains important, but stability that comes about because of secrecy and censorship wont last.

People will find out the true situation eventually. But before the truth is out, they could come to their own probably even false conclusions that might have a devastating effect on themselves and on others.

Reporters Without Borders in their 2007 report refers to promises of press freedom by governments in developing nations but notes that the promises were seldom kept.

But it found at least one shining example in Africa: Leonard Vincent, Head of the Africa desk of Reporters without Borders wrote: "The military junta in power in Mauritania since 2005 had promised to guarantee press freedom, legislative reform top respect the balance of political forces during elections, to free state-owned press from too much government control and to treat the independent press as a development partner. In 2006 it did all this." And it did with consultation with the news media.

It is important to stress that journalists and the press are not without obligation they must report fairly and accurately and they must be willing to correct errors.

Their publishers must uphold codes of conduct that assure their readership that they are conducting themselves responsibly, that their commitment to press freedom is real.

Governments may impose rules and regulations but ultimately journalists must lay themselves accountable to the public.

They are obliged to seek the truth and it is this aspect of journalism that often brings journalists into dangerous territory.

They will face allegations of bias and meddling as they go about their work. They may even pay the ultimate sacrifice.

But they must remain committed to upholding the principles of the free press - to report accurately and fairly and with the courage to find the truth.

They can of course perform this function better without the sense of someone looking over their shoulder every inch of the way or by denying them and the public access to information, or by placing the threat of imprisonment in their way.

The press around the world faces many challenges as it seeks to protect its freedom and carry out its important functions.

The way forward must include dialogue between the press and authorities to ensure the best outcome is achieved for the people.

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