Troubling outcome of press freedom inquiry
Former judges or senior lawyers should be able to make recommendations about police raids on journalists or media organisations reporting in the public interest under new rules proposed following an inquiry into press freedom in Australia.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security also found Australia's spy agency should reveal how many times it applied for warrants on journalists each year and journalists should be told when they are no longer under investigation as part of 16 recommendations tabled late last night.
But press freedom advocates said the recommendations would not stop journalists from being jailed for doing their job, and some members of the inquiry said its recommendations represented a "bare minimum" approach and "broader reforms to protect press freedom and the public's right to know are clearly needed"
The parliamentary inquiry followed Australian Federal Police raids on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC's Sydney headquarters in June last year, and an unprecedented campaign for legal reform by Australian media organisations.
Parliamentary Joint Committee chairman Andrew Hastie said the inquiry, which was called in July last year and received 61 submissions, found greater protections and transparency were needed around reporting on matters of public interest in Australia.
"The issues related to law enforcement, intelligence powers and press freedoms are complex, and this inquiry has allowed the Committee to examine a range of matters in great detail," he said.
Its final report recommended Public Interest Advocates should have a say in warrant applications against journalists and media organisations over the potential "unauthorised disclosure of government information," and warrants should only be issued by superior courts.
The inquiry also supported reviews of defamation laws and the introduction of shield laws for journalists, greater consistency in the way government departments handled Freedom of Information requests, and a review of what information was classified as secret.
The report said both the Home Affairs Minister and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation should reveal how many warrants were sought against journalists and media organisations each year, and how many attempts were made to get them.
But its findings were criticised by members of its own committee, with Labor members adding that the recommendations did "not go far enough".
"The Morrison Government should regard the Committee's recommendations as a bare minimum - a starting point - for reform," they said.
"Broader reforms to protect press freedom and the public's right to know are clearly needed, though Labor members recognise that reasonable minds may differ about precisely what those broader reforms should look like."
MEAA Media federal president Marcus Strom said the result was disappointing after a year-long wait for significant changes, and despite support for some reform, "journalists still face jail for legitimate news reporting in the public interest".
"Most troubling in the inquiry's recommendations is the fact that warrants can still be issued for police raids on journalists and media companies without those warrants being challenged," he said.
"While we welcome the proposal that such warrants must be issued by a superior court, journalists must be able to challenge warrants before they are acted upon."
News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller said the report showed there was still "much work to be done" to protect press freedom Australia.
"The PJCIS report highlights the problems journalists have in doing their job to keep Australians informed, and acknowledges that they must be better protected," he said.
"However, while the report acknowledges the problem, it doesn't go far enough in solving it."
The inquiry followed an industry-wide campaign by the Right to Know coalition of media organisations, including News Corp, the ABC, Nine, Seven, SBS, and The Guardian, calling for six reforms to ensure the public was kept informed. They included the right to contest search warrants, protection for public sector whistleblowers, changes to Freedom of Information and defamation laws, limits for restricting government documents, and protection for journalists threatened with jail for doing their jobs.
Originally published as Troubling outcome of press freedom inquiry