Media union: “self-regulation fundamental”

Self-Regulation is fundamental to the preservation of a free and independent news media, says the Australian media union who are “disappointed” by the Finkelstein Inquiry and the Convergence Review missing the opportunity to properly discuss the future of the news industry.

A report by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance examines the factors limiting press freedom in Australia including spin, whistleblower laws, freedom of information, secrecy provisions, and detention centre access.

The number of journalists in Australia is declining while the number of professional media managers or public relations employees is growing.

The report warns of the “chilling effect this has on free speech” and the “danger of the “comment cycle” where opinion is increasingly replacing factual stories”.

Australian journalists are being pressured by courts to reveal the identities of their sources. Protection for whistleblowers is getting “bogged down” in arguments over the definition of “a journalist” and “journalism”, said the report. Australia-wide legislation protects anyone engaged and active in the publication of news, while the legislation in the state of NSW narrows the definition to “a person engaged in the profession or occupation of journalism in connection with the publication of information in a news medium”.

The report suggests “the urgency” of getting whistleblower legislation right to ensure journalists are protected in all states and territories. Commentary is included from those who do not believe the current government has the resolve to deliver on its promises for whistleblower protection.

Freedom of information in Australia was ranked 39 out of 85 countries in a recent international survey. The report highlights the “lack of a constitutional right of access to information” and “widespread exemptions” as contributing factors.

Australia has more than 500 secrecy provisions in 176 pieces of legislation. Journalists may break them; inadvertently or otherwise, in the course of their work and incur fines or imprisonment of up to 10 years.

The report recommends repealing these secrecy provisions and replacing them with a general secrecy offence that is limited to disclosures that clearly harm the public interest.

The report criticises an agreement that journalists are required to sign before visiting detention centres and talking to asylum seekers, released last October by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). It forces journalists to hand over cameras and tape recorders for scrutiny and be accompanied at all times inside detention centres by a DIAC officer who can end their visit at any time.

“The Media Alliance has criticised this deed as overly restrictive and is leading a public campaign to persuade the department to rethink the policy.”

The report, “Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy: The state of press freedom in Australia”, will be released at the annual Press Freedom dinner in Sydney tonight.

It is “required reading for anyone who believes that a strong, independent and diverse news industry is a key guarantor for democracy”, said the union.

This article has been published by The Newspaper Works on 4 May 2012.

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