Senior media operatives have expressed grave concerns about the future of journalism in Australia, saying that the current defamation, contempt of court laws and the proposed amendments to national security laws have journalists treating every story like “it is a criminal prosecution.”
The World Press Freedom Day Panel held at Twitter Australia HQ in Sydney included Fairfax Media investigative reporter Kate McClymont, News Corp Australia’s national editorial counsel Michael Cameron and University of Queensland journalism chair Peter Greste, who agreed that the current environment was making it increasingly harder to report on issues of national importance.
“I will confidently say Australia has the worst defamation laws in the English-speaking world,” said Mr Cameron.
Mr Cameron argued that without the protection of freedom of speech legislated into the constitution, a charter of freedoms or properly defined legal tests, it is extremely difficult for media organisations to avoid defamation lawsuits.
“Nowadays when you do a story you do have to assume it is like a criminal prosecution,” said Ms McClymont.
Mr Greste, a former Al-Jazeera journalist who was imprisoned in Egypt on charges of reporting news damaging to Egyptian national security, said that the changes to Australia’s security laws were more about the government saving face than protection.
“The government is redrafting the legislation so broadly to make it almost impossible for civil servants to start talking to journalists without having their data exposed, without falling afoul of the national security legislation. “
“What we are doing is creating a system where we [journalists] can’t have access to public servants, where we can’t have insight into public service operations that we really need for a functioning, healthy democracy.”
The key example of this was the #MeToo movement. When the New York Times reported on the sexual abuse claims against Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein, journalists were protected by several pieces of libel legislation, including the public figure test. The test allows reporters to publish stories on a public figure if there was no malicious intent behind the report.
Mr Cameron attests that if the report was first published in Australia, Mr Weinstein would have been able to sue – and would have had a “good chance of winning”.