Freedom of the Press

Australia

Freedom of the Press 2016
Press Freedom Status: 
Free
Political Environment: 
10 / 40
(0=BEST, 40=WORST)
Economic Environment: 
7 / 30
(0=BEST, 30=WORST)
Press Freedom Score: 
23 / 100 (↓1)
(0=BEST, 100=WORST)

Quick Facts

Population: 
23,888,000
Net Freedom Status: 
Free
Freedom in the World Status: 
Free
Internet Penetration Rate: 
84.6%

Overview

The media landscape is generally stable, although a number of restrictive and intrusive laws passed in recent years have raised concerns about media professionals’ privacy and ability to operate without interference.

 

Key Developments

  • In March 2015, Parliament passed telecommunications legislation requiring internet and mobile phone providers to store user metadata for two years; media freedom and privacy advocates argued that the law would enable excessive surveillance and threaten the ability of journalists to interact securely with sources.
  • A June amendment to strengthen copyright protections online raised concerns about potential misuse; civil liberties advocates noted that the amendment was broadly worded and could be used to block some content published by whistleblowers, as government documents are often protected by copyright.
  • The government continued to restrict media coverage at immigration detention centers in 2015, including at a major offshore center located in Nauru.

 

Legal Environment: 6 / 30 (↓1)

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.

A series of legislative changes in recent years have the potential to curb press freedom. In 2014, Parliament approved the National Security Legislation Amendment Act, which introduced a five-year prison sentence for any person who discloses information relating to “special” intelligence operations, with an increase to 10 years if the disclosure would “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation.”

In March 2015, Parliament passed telecommunications legislation that requires internet and mobile phone providers to store user metadata for two years. Media freedom and privacy advocates argued that the law would enable excessive surveillance and threaten the ability of journalists to interact securely with sources. Moreover, broad exceptions for third-party platforms and internal corporate and university networks raised questions about the law’s effectiveness. Separately, a June amendment to strengthen copyright protections online raised concerns about potential misuse; civil liberties advocates noted that the amendment was broadly worded and could be used to block some content published by whistleblowers, as government documents are often protected by copyright.

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 2014, the state legislature of South Australia rejected draft legislation 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 increasingly more common, can result in heavy fines. In 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 Federal Court awarded Hockey AU$200,000 (US$150,000) for a headline it deemed malicious. In a separate, long running case, a South Australian Supreme Court ruled that Google was responsible for linking to defamatory websites through its search engine.

The Freedom of Information Act of 1982 provides for access to government documents. In 2014, the administration of Tony Abbott—who held the seat of prime minister until September 2015—Introduced the Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill. The measure stalled and had not been passed at the end of 2015. If adopted, it would cut government funding for freedom of information services and eliminate the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, transferring its core functions to other state entities. The legislation would also require individuals to pay an AU$800 (US$700) filing fee to appeal any government decision to withhold information.

 

Political Environment: 10 / 40

The Australian government continued to restrict media coverage at immigration detention centers in 2015, including at a major offshore center located in Nauru. Journalists hoping to report from the facilities 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 severely limited, and any photographs, video footage, or audio recordings are subject to review by department officials.

In 2014, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced that the government would no longer hold weekly press briefings on border control; these briefings had recently been focused on the large numbers of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat. Instead, Morrison said such briefings would take place as needed, and that information would otherwise be disseminated in press releases.

Attacks and physical harassment against media professionals are usually rare, but some incidents were reported in 2015. In June, a bystander outside of a courthouse stubbed a cigarette on a reporter’s face. Police arrested the assailant on the charge of public nuisance.

 

Economic Environment: 7 / 10

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 2014, the Abbott government announced plans to cut approximately AU$250 million (US$190 million) of funding to the ABC over the course of five years. Between December 2014 and June 2015, the broadcaster dismissed close to 240 employees as a result of the funding decrease, 45 of them journalists; more than 250 additional jobs are expected to be cut. Fairfax and News Corp also announced a large number of dismissals during in 2015.

About 85 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2015. Internet access is generally affordable, and the government subsidizes satellite telephones and internet connections in rural areas.