Showing what full-blown media censorship would look like, the front page of every newspaper in Australia was blacked out – completely redacted – on Oct. 21 in protest over successive governments trying to track down state secret leaks by penalizing whistleblowers and going hard after journalists doing their job.
It was an across-the-board collaboration that brought in newspapers all along the spectrum, including Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, the campaign of Australia’s Right to Know coalition in a country characterized as the world’s most secretive democracy.
The News Corp Australia and Nine mastheads showed blacked-out text beside red stamps marked “secret,” a protest the BBC said aimed at national security laws which journalists say have strangled investigative reporting and created a “culture of secrecy” in Australia. Meanwhile, the government stated it would back press freedom but that “no one was above the law” over revealing state documents it wants kept secret.
Print, online and on-air news outlets teamed in a joint effort to pressure the government to soften its restrictive secrecy laws although it has ignored or refuted even intense criticism and doubled down its attempts to throw a shroud over any attempt by reporters to disclose abuse of power.
It followed raids on the state-run Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the home of News Corp. journalist Annika Smethurst who was writing about secret government plans to collect information and data on citizens, a move outraging journalists and media groups.
Michael Miller, executive chairman of News Corp Australia, tweeted an image of his blacked-out mastheads which include The Australian and The Daily Telegraph. He urged the public to ask of the government: “What are they trying to hide from me?
As the legality of the administration of Premier Scott Morrison’s attempt to muzzle the media and stifle whistleblowers talking to journalists is being challenged in court, there’s been blowback against the government with surveys showing a majority of people believe they have the right to know if the state is trying to track what they do.
Morrison, rampaging against the press and whistleblowers since a stunning upset win in the national elections in May surveys said his Liberal party would easily lose – riding a populist wave – said that, “The rule of law has to be applied evenly and fairly in the protection of our broader freedoms,” he said. “And so I don’t think anyone is, I hope, looking for a leave pass on any of those things, I wouldn’t and nor should anyone else.”
The Daily Telegraph, a News Corp. tabloid, its redacted front page was “a bleak warning of a future where laws continue to erode media freedom so governments can cover up information from the public.”
“The truth is, those in power don’t want the public to know what they’re up to and are shutting down transparency and accountability to serve their own interests,” Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told Guardian Australia, which joined the campaign.
“The raids on Annika Smethurst and the ABC are the straw that broke the camel’s back,” News Corp Australasia Executive Chairman Michael Miller said.
A survey conducted by the right-to-know group in October found that while 87% of respondents said it was important that Australia be a free, open and transparent democracy, only 37% felt that this was the case. With Morrison’s government defending retaliation against journalists and whistleblowers to put a clamp on the leak of state secrets, including what critics said was an attempt to blunt the impact of a story alleging war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan, it is not hard to see why.
The #righttoknow coalition has six key demands at the heart of its campaign, including a review of Freedom of Information laws, the right to contest search warrants before they are issued, the overhaul of defamation laws and limits on what documents can be marked secret.
JAILING THE MESSENGER
While the newspapers ran redacted articles on their front pages in a show of solidarity, and online and on the air, prominent journalists called for change, the New York Times said.
“When government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering up?” was the question that ran on the cover of newspapers including The Australian, owned Mr. Murdoch; the liberal Fairfax newspapers; and smaller city and rural newspapers.
The question was accompanied with lines of text that had been heavily blacked out, typical of the the release of state reports hiding what the government doesn’t want people to know and saying it’s in the national interest, a tactic critics said is meant to keep people in the dark.
For years, governments from the left and right have given law enforcement and intelligence agencies more powers, diminished those of its citizens with Australia without a Bill of Rights nor freedom of speech, constituting basic tenets of a democracy.
“It’s something that’s been a creeping culture over many years, and that culture is prioritization of secrecy at all costs over the accountability of public institutions,” Hugh Marks, Chief Executive of Nine Entertainment, which merged with Fairfax Media last year, told the Times.
Lisa Davies, Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald tweeted that the campaign was equally as important to citizens affected by government secrecy laws as reporters or whistleblowers, writing that,” This is not a campaign for journalists – it’s for Australia’s democracy.”
Ironically, the government’s strong hand tactics and the raids on ABC and Smethust united media organizations with differing styles and policies. “Legitimate journalism should have a defense,” Marks said.
“The presumption is you’re a criminal. The balance of secrecy and disclosure, the balance between what journalists can and can’t do, that balance has been redrawn too far toward secrecy,” he added of government moves.
Guardian Australia called for the right to challenge government applications for warrants against journalists, exemptions for journalists to laws that would see them jailed for doing their job, legislated protections for public sector whistleblowers, and reforms to both freedom of information and defamation laws as well as a limit on what documents can be declared secret.
George Williams, Dean of Law at the University of New South Wales said governments have gone beyond going after freedom of the press they claim to support. “There’s an even larger number of laws that go to the suppression of free speech,” he said. “It’s extended to doctors in overseas detention camps facing jail for talking about conditions there,” he told the Times.