Explainer: Why Major Australian Newspapers Have Blacked Out Front Pages Today

australia press freedom newspapers

Australia's biggest media organisations have censored the front pages of their print editions today in an effort to protect press freedom.

The Right To Know Coalition, which includes News Corp, The Guardian, the ABC, SBS, Nine and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) have all gotten involved. Here's why.

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These organisations have joined forces to push for stronger journalist and whistleblower protection and to reform legislation that impacts on public interest journalism.

While there is certainly an argument to be made that the press itself is not above scrutiny when it comes to what gets reported, this will merely serve as an explainer as to why media organisations are banding together now.

Disclosure: Gizmodo Australia's parent company, Pedestrian Group, is owned by Nine Entertainment.


Why Now?

According to the Canberra Times, the journalist union's Paul Murphy said that the past two decades as seen a "tidal wave" of national security legislation that has been pushed through parliament quickly. This has reportedly been accompanied by increased punishment for whistleblowers.

Over 60 laws regarding secrecy and spying has been passed since then, with a further 22 passed in regards to whistleblowing.


What are some examples of journalists being targeted?

This twenty-year rise came to a head on June 4, 2019 when News Corp political journalist Annika Smethurst had her home raided by police.

The reason for this was over an April 2018 story that revealed government figures were concerned about a proposal for Australian Signals Directorate (and electronic intelligence agency) to take on an expanded domestic role.

A day later, federal police raided the ABC's Sydney headquarters. This time, authorities were looking into a 2017 series the ABC ran about war crimes in Afghanistan allegedly committed by Australian special forces.

As the SMH points out, a military lawyer had committed to standing trial in regards to the leak a mere week earlier.

"A number of our journalist members have told me since the police raids earlier this year that they've lost sources, that they've lost stories because (sources) clearly see the nature of those raids as being government agencies sending a message," Murphy said.

Another police raid was reportedly scheduled for June 6 but it didn't eventuate.

Journalists named in the raids are still unsure as to whether they'll face criminal charges.

While press freedom may have been steadily eroding over decades, it was these back-to-back raids regarding old stories that kicked off increased concerns regarding a campaign to intimidate journalists and whistleblowers.


What about whistleblowers?

One of the most high-profile examples is a man known simply as Witness K.

Back in 2004, Witness K was a senior intelligence officer for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and was involved in an operation that involved bugging the offices of key officials in the Timor-Leste government.

The reason? Australia and the U.S. were bidding for a deal that would give each country a run at Greater Sunrise - a gas field located in the Timor sea worth between $40 and $50 billion.

According to The Guardian, "The listening devices would reveal Timor-Leste’s bottom line, its negotiating tactics and the competing views of cabinet members."

The treaty ended up being signed and Australia received a 50-50 split of the reserve.

Witness K reportedly felt uncomfortable about the operation and went to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), who granted them permission to speak to barrister Bernard Collaery, who was once attorney general for the ACT.

Collaery and the Timor-Leste government built a case against the Australian government, arguing the treaty was null and void due to espionage.

Fast forward to 2013. Collaery's home practice was raided by police officers carrying a predominantly blacked out warrant. Legal briefs pertaining to the case were seized.

Witnesss K's home was raided simultaneously and their passport was seized, preventing them from leaving the country to give evidence. Despite the director-general of ASIO clearing them for a passport it hasn't been returned.

Just last year Timor-Leste dropped the case and signed a new treaty with Australia that was far more financially beneficial to the small nation.

Three months after the treaty was signed, both Witness K and Bernard Collaery were charged with "conspiring to breach section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act for allegedly communicating information they obtained in the course of employment or an agreement with Asis," according to the Guardian.

The timing of the charges has been questioned by the press, as well as in the Senate. It has been argued that prosecutors may have sat on their evidence against the pair for years in order to avoid a diplomatic incident with Timor-Leste that would threaten the new treaty.

Witness K plans on pleading guilty to the charges, with Collaery choosing to fight the charges in the ACT supreme court.

Outcomes like this are one of the reasons why the Right To Know Coliation is fighting for legilsation change to protect whistleblowers.

Other recent examples include two parking inspectors who revealed that they allegedly were directed to not issue fines to tradies working on the property developments of an Auburn councillor, and a debt collector who provided information for a Fairfax/Four Corners investigation into the tax office.


What's The Aim?

In light of the treatment of both journalists and whistleblowers, as well as increased difficulty to obtain information under Freedom of Information (FOI), the Right To Know Coalition has six proposals that it believes "will protect the interest of public interest journalism".

  • The right to contest the application for warrants for journalists and media organisations
  • Public sector whistle-blowers must be adequately protected – the current law needs to change;
  • A properly functioning freedom of information (FOI) regime
  • Exemptions for journalists from laws that would put them in jail for doing their jobs, including security laws enacted over the last seven years;
  • A new regime that limits which documents can be stamped secret
  • Defamation law reform

How has the government responded?

In response to the AFP raids in June, the government opened an 'Inquiry into the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press'.

However, this has not been enough to dissuade the media from speaking out against treatment of the press and whistleblowers.

Despite claiming that they support freedom of the press, both prime minister Scott Morrison and other senior officials have defended the AFP raids as a matter of national security.

"Australia believes strongly in the freedom of the press and we have clear rules and protections for freedom of the press," said Mr Morrison.

"There are also clear rules protecting Australia's national security and everybody should operate in accordance with all of those laws passed by our Parliament."

"I support the powers that the agencies have under our laws."

Similarly, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton directed the AFP to consider press freedoms in the aftermath of the raids on the ABC and Annika Smethurst.

However, as shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally pointed out, these directives came at 4pm on a Friday, mere days before the Parliament's Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security's public hearings into press freedoms.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has told Commonwealth prosecutors that they are not to charge journalists under certain secrecy laws without his approval. He added that he would be "seriously disinclined" to authorise these kinds of prosecutions.

However, the alleged discretion of one person (nor what politicians say in press conferences while under scrutiny), is not the same thing as legislation that will protect journalists and whistleblowers.

But perhaps all of this shouldn't be surprising. After all, as the Guardian points out, politicians are exempt from our current whistleblowing laws, as is intelligence information.


Where can I learn more?

The Right To Know has a website full of resources regarding the current state of press freedom in Australia.

It also lets you know how you can show your support.

This includes emailing your local member and showing your support on social media by using the #righttoknow hashtag.

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