Community outrage at new state legislation that effectively curbs political debate on the Internet is a stark reminder that even in a proud democracy such as Australia’s, the fight for individual freedoms is one of vigilance.
Too often, it is left to media companies, especially newspapers, to wage this constant war to maintain what Australians see as their right to say to make free and fair comment.
Currently, we lobby government over obtaining documents under the Freedom of Information Act; we have even had to go to the ACCC to try to ensure our press freedoms when we report on cricket and other sports.
The latest amendments to the South Australian Electoral Act are a new low for this country, and the worst seen by the regional industry since police decided to make nightly visits to the newsrooms of Fiji’s newspapers to control information.
Australia is not Fiji. Adelaide is not Suva. So what on earth is going on? While our society and legal system rightfully draw a line at abuse such as racial vilification, no citizen in this country would believe they could not criticise or analyse the performance of their own government. But we had all better believe it now.
South Australians will soon risk a fine of $1,250 for igniting or participating in political debate on the Internet within 25 days of a state election – unless they state their full name and postcode. And if they make that comment on a news-driven website, such as adelaidenow.com.au, then they must provide a full address.
The penalty is $5,000 for a “guilty” organization.
The presumed aim of the legislation is to hold someone responsible for political comment on the Internet.
If this article makes its way from print to the Net during an election campaign, it is protected because the law says it is published in a “journal”. If a reader wished to respond to it in a political manner as feedback on the Net, they would need to state their details or risk the fine.
If they come clean, the publisher must hold that information for six months. And if they don’t, either their freedom of speech is denied, or the publisher will be responsible somehow.
No media organisation should have to go to the trouble and expense of capturing such details for the sake of accepting feedback via a website – especially when individual privacy is a society-wide concern.
The idea of a newspaper editor dobbing in a reader for making an online political comment that somehow offends the government of the day is laughable and Orwellian. The newsroom would hang the editor from the nearest lamppost, unless the proprietor managed to do it first.
Whatever way one looks at this, it is bad legislation and incompatible with democracy in a digital age.
The intimidating effect this is designed to have on South Australians’ freedom of expression is a national scandal.
Legislation already exists to protect individuals from defamatory statements on the Internet and elsewhere. That is sufficient, even for the politicians of South Australia. Politics is not for the thin-skinned.
State MPs who have spent time, effort and taxpayer funds to silence or intimidate bloggers and a legion of voters who like to make comments on the web, have make their state and our nation appear as a cultural and democratic backwater of a most un-Australian kind.
This article was written for The Advertiser of Adelaide amid a public outcry against a move to change South Australian electoral laws that limited free speech. The Attorney-General had legislated that anyone making political comment in a blog, through social media or any type digital platform, within 25 day of a state election, must declare their full name and address with the posting. And the publisher must hold those details for six months. The legislation has been withdrawn this week.