Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Press freedom in Australia operates by convention rather than by constitutional guarantees. However, in July the state of Victoria introduced a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities that includes protection for freedom of expression. The Australian Press Council and the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA) monitor journalistic freedom and access to information. Both groups have expressed concern over a decline in press freedom in a number of areas in 2006.
In spite of recommendations by the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Antiterrorism Act of 2005, which imposes a blanket ban on reporting about people detained under antiterrorism legislation, has yet to be reformed. Journalists may be charged with sedition and face a seven-year jail sentence for reporting against the actions of the government, police, or judiciary. Additionally, the Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Act of 2006 was passed, affording the right to police and other security agencies to monitor phone conversations as well as access the e-mail and text messages of people who have associated with those accused of crimes. The MEAA has expressed concern that this will lead to greater journalistic self-censorship and hesitancy of sources to reveal information to the press.
In 2006, a judge upheld the decision to hold two journalists from the Herald Sun in contempt for refusing to reveal a source before a judge in Melbourne in 2005. In an assault on freedom of information in late 2006, the high court of Australia voted 3–2 to deny access to documents requested by The Australian journalist Michael McKinnon. McKinnon requested documents on income tax and first-time home buyers grants but was denied by Treasurer Peter Costello, who stated that the documents were not “in the public interest.” Lengthy delays and high costs already impede access to information. In a victory for press freedom, Australia introduced uniform defamation laws that cap maximum damages, restrict action to one year after publication, bar legal action from large corporations, and introduce truth as a complete defense.
Australia has a strong tradition of public broadcasting, though the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has faced dramatic funding cuts and in 2006 was stripped of its only staff-elected board position. Private media ownership is concentrated, with the majority of ownership by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd. and Fairfax Group (negotiations are under way for a possible merger with Rural Press Ltd.). Media ownership laws were further relaxed in 2006 when the minimum number of “voices” in a city was reduced to five and in regions to four. The internet is a vibrant medium in Australia, accessed by 70 percent of the population. However, censorship concerns were raised when the prime minister’s office closed down a website, 36 hours after its launch, for satirizing Prime Minister John Howard.