Press freedom hit by failure to pass shield laws

Press freedom hit by failure to pass shield laws

The Newspaper Works has released a statement in response to the South Australian parliament’s failure to pass shield laws, it can be read here.

Press freedom in Australia suffered another blow this week when legislation to enshrine the right of journalists to protect their sources was voted down in the South Australian Parliament.

The move has been condemned by major publishers, broadcasters and industry bodies in a month that has seen the right to report on national security issues severely restricted and journalists and media employees threatened with jail under legislation passed by the Federal Parliament.

The Evidence (Protections for Journalists) Amendment Bill 2014, a private member’s bill introduced to the upper house by independent MLC John Darley, would offer protection for journalists and their employers from being forced to reveal confidential sources.

The bill was introduced into the upper house in September and after amendments to the legislation by the opposition Liberal party, it was passed through the senate with the support of the Liberals and several crossbenchers.

However, the bill was denied passage through the lower house yesterday, as independent ministers Martin Hamilton-Smith and Geoff Brock decided to vote with the government in opposition to the laws. The bill would have passed had it had the support of the Mr Hamilton-Smith and Mr Brock.

The government has maintained opposition to the legislation since its introduction, with Attorney-General John Rau calling the bill “flawed” and saying that there was no pressing need for the proposal.

Under current South Australian laws, failure to reveal sources can result in substantial fines and jail terms.

In a letter addressed to Mr Rau and sent to all South Australian ministers, an alliance of media organisations tied to the Australia’s Right to Know Coalition argued that the legislation is necessary and important.

“The Media Organisations support the amended Bill,” the letter read. “It provides a comprehensive regime that appropriately balances the need for protection of journalists’ sources with judicial oversight.”

The letter also said Mr Rau’s comments about there being no pressing need for ‘shield laws’ was not the case.

“The local and international jurisdictions that have implemented journalists’ shield laws have done so not because there has been a raft of ‘evidence’ or ‘court actions’ or journalists paying fines and/or doing time in jail,” the letter read.

“Rather, and importantly, those jurisdictions have acknowledged the importance of strengthening the protections provided to journalists and their sources in fostering freedom of the media and the public’s right – and need – to know.”

The letter was co-signed by The Newspaper Works and its founding members APN, Fairfax Media, News Corp and West Australian Newspapers, as well as Australian Associated Press, ABC, ASTRA, Bauer Media, Commercial Radio Australia, FreeTV, MEAA and SBS.

The media organisations noted in the letter that concerns around the protection of journalists’ confidential sources have been highlighted in recent court cases involving journalists such as Steve Pennells, Adele Ferguson, Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker and Paddy Manning.

Mr Darley said that he is disappointed that his bill was not passed and that the government’s refusal to support it was evidence that “they are not committed to openness”.

“There have been a number of matters of great public interest which have been brought to light because whistleblowers have gone to the media,” he said.

“If they are not confident that their identity will be protected they may not come forward. This is about ensuring accountability and transparency for the public.”

The Newspaper Works CEO Mark Hollands said the newspaper industry was extremely disappointed that the shield laws were not passed.

“It is imperative that journalists be allowed to protect the identity of their sources,” he said. “It is a basic condition of a free press.

“Failure to pass this legislation suggests a belief in South Australia that you can silence your critics by intimidating those who wish to highlight wrongdoing in the public interest.

“It is ridiculous that journalists should continue to face jail for being determined to keep secret the identity of their sources. It is a blatant attempt to undermine the integrity of journalism.”

Mr Hollands also cited source protection laws in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia, and expressed disappointment that South Australia could not provide similar protections to reporters in its jurisdiction.

After the legislation failed to pass the lower house, a spokesperson for Australia’s Right to Know coalition of media companies told The Newspaper Works that the Weatherill Government provided no reasonable basis to vote against the laws.

“It is a regrettable state of affairs that the Weatherill Government has politicised this issue,” the spokesperson said. “As a result journalists in South Australia continue to face fines and jail time to maintain the anonymity of a source.

“This is untenable in a democracy.”

Shadow Attorney-General Vickie Chapman said that the government’s refusal to support the legislation was “another attack on transparency and accountability by a secretive Labor Government”.

“The Weatherill Government today had an opportunity to support legislation that would have allowed journalists to protect their sources, but they chose to reject the proposal.

“This sends a clear message to the media and the general public – the Weatherill Labor Government does not want to operate openly and transparently.

“Whistle-blowers need to be supported when they come forward and this proposal would have supported them. Without this protection whistle-blowers may be intimidated into silence.”

Another bill related to the protection of confidential sources, which was introduced by Liberal MLC Stephen Wade in July, is currently before the South Australian upper house. The bill is titled Evidence (Journalists) Amendment Bill 2014.

Mr Darley’s office was not able to confirm whether he would reintroduce the Evidence (Protections for Journalists) Amendment Bill 2014, or lobby Mr Hamilton-Smith and Mr Brock for support of the bill, however he said he would support Mr Wade’s bill.

“With regard to reintroducing the Bill, the Liberals still have a Bill before the Upper House and we will be supporting this Bill,” he said.

“We will be working with the Opposition and continue to lobby the government on this matter.”

For more news from The Newspaper Works, click here.

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