Freedom of the Press
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Press freedom in Australia is not constitutionally guaranteed, but the High Court has ruled that language in the constitution implies a right to freedom of expression, and the government generally respects this principle. In the state of Victoria, press freedom is explicitly protected under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
In October 2014, Parliament approved the National Security Legislation Amendment Act, which introduces a 5-year prison sentence for any person who discloses information relating to “special intelligence operations,” and a 10-year sentence if the disclosure would “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation.” Media freedom advocates expressed concern that the legislation would discourage journalists from reporting on national security issues.
The 2011 Evidence Amendment Act protects the identity of journalists’ sources and extends this protection to the sources of bloggers, citizen journalists, independent media organizations, and anyone “active in the publication of news in any medium.” However, the Evidence Amendment Act can only be applied in federal cases, and similar protection varies widely at the state level. Lacking nationally uniform protection, journalists remain vulnerable to subpoenas seeking to obtain information on their confidential sources. In October 2014, the state legislature of South Australia voted down proposed shield laws that would have protected journalists and media outlets from being compelled to reveal their sources.
The 2006 Uniform Defamation Laws Reform Act allows only individuals, nonprofits, and corporations with fewer than 10 employees to sue over defamation. Although rarely invoked, criminal defamation laws are still on the books in Australia. Civil cases, which are more common, can result in heavy fines. In May 2014, Treasurer of Australia Joe Hockey sued the publisher Fairfax Media over articles in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, and the Canberra Times that accused him of accepting bribes while in office. The case remained open at year’s end.
The Freedom of Information Act of 1982 provides for access to government documents. In October 2014, the administration of Prime Minister Tony Abbott introduced the Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill. If passed, it would cut government funding for freedom of information services and eliminate the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), whose core functions would be absorbed by other departments. The legislation would also require individuals to pay an AU$800 (US$700) filing fee to appeal any government decision to withhold information. Media freedom advocates and opposition parties criticized the bill as a major impediment to freedom of information and a reversal of reforms passed in 2010. The measure was still under consideration at year’s end.
The government in 2014 continued its practice of restricting media coverage at immigration detention centers. According to these restrictions, journalists hoping to report from the centers must sign a “deed of agreement” that requires them to be accompanied by an immigration official and comply with all rules set by the immigration department throughout their visit. Communication with detainees remains limited, and any photographs, video footage, or audio recordings are subject to review by department officials.
In February 2014, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced that the government would no longer hold weekly press briefings on border control, at which discussion usually revolved around the large numbers of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat. Instead, Morrison said such briefings would take place on an “as-needs basis,” and that information would otherwise be disseminated in press releases.
Attacks and physical harassment targeting journalists are rare, and no cases were reported in 2014.
While most media outlets are privately owned, ownership is highly concentrated, with the print sector dominated by Fairfax Media and News Corporation. Australia has a strong tradition of public broadcasting. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), although state owned and entirely funded by the government, remains editorially independent. However, in November 2014 the Abbott government said it would cut funding to ABC by over A$200 million (US$175 million); the broadcaster said this would result in the elimination of a number of positions and reductions in regional programming.
About 85 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2014. Internet access is affordable for most Australians, and the government subsidizes satellite telephones and internet connections in rural areas.