Why 2013 was a bad year for Press Freedom in Australia

Click to listen to my interview with Mark Pearson

Earlier this week, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) released its annual World Press Freedom Index, a ranking system of the level of press freedom in each country. Australia found itself at 28 on the index, two spots lower than the year before.

I spoke to Mark Pearson, Australian correspondent for RSF (known as Reporters Without Borders in English) about the index as well as the state of media freedom here in Australia. Pearson, who is also Professor of Journalism and Social Media at Griffith University, explained that even though it was difficult to tell why countries moved up and down the list, Australia on the whole had a poor year with regards to press freedom.

He listed a number of reasons for this, including the Gillard government’s attempted media reforms. The former government’s move to turn the Australian press away from self-regulation towards the enforcement of authoritative codes of practice was seen by RSF as a direct impingement on media freedom, despite the government’s claims it was doing so in the interests of media diversity.

Pearson also criticised the amount of suppression orders that had been ordered by judges across the country. Though suppression orders are necessary in many court cases to ensure the media do not obstruct the natural course of justice, too many of them can be regarded as a gag on the media’s ability to report and appraise the performance of the justice system.

Famous media personality and journalist Derryn Hinch was last year found to be in contempt of court after breaching a suppression order about the murder of Melbourne woman and ABC journalist Jill Meagher. (See source here)

Perhaps of most concern to RSF however – given that it was the only mention Australia received on the official Press Freedom Index report – was the lack of protection journalists received to maintain the confidentiality of their sources. Australia was criticised for the prosecution of seven journalists who were made to reveal their sources for one reason or another – and some of these cases are still ongoing. (For an explanation as to why source confidentiality is important for journalists and society, see here.)

Despite this, Pearson noted that progress had been made in some states in passing shield laws to give journalists protection from being made to reveal their sources’ identities or whereabouts. However, as Media Watch reported last September, this progress wasn’t entirely fruitful.

It could be much worse though, according to Pearson. Australia is still in the Top 30, out of a list of 180 countries or so, and it sits above other liberal Western democracies such as the US and the UK.

The US made the news for its significant drop of 13 places in this year’s index, and Pearson explained that RSF has continually criticised the superpower because both its federal and state governments use anti-terrorism laws (which were made to justify authoritarian behaviour on the government’s behalf as a means of stopping terrorism) to make journalists reveal their sources when relevant. This is despite freedom of speech being enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

The US was also criticised for its surveillance of journalists and for the way it treated journalists at The Guardian who reported the leaks of Edward Snowden.

As usual, the Top 10 of the list was dominated by Scandinavian and European nations, headed by Finland, the Netherlands and Norway. Pearson explained that these countries continuously outperformed the rest of the world because they had press freedom enshrined in their constitutions, making it difficult – and almost impossible – for courts and politicians to prosecute journalists apart from in serious cases.

Interestingly, Pearson did not think that commercial interests represented a major limitation on press freedom in Australia anymore, as digital media have completely changed the nature of journalists’ expression. The threat of big media companies suppressing journalists’ voices was a thing of the past, he said, as the internet had allowed for complete freedom of expression, eliminating the dependence journalists had on conventional media as platforms to report to the public on.

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