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Free speech audit in Australia

By Steven | December 6, 2007

Former NSW Ombudsman Irene Moss has conducted an audit into the state of free speech in Australia and concluded that “free speech and media freedom are being whittled away by gradual and sometimes almost imperceptible degrees.”

I confess I’m always a bit suspicious of death-by-a-thousand-cuts claims, since they often overlook or underestimate the ways in which free speech is functioning robustly, and in fact being expanded. Moss’s conclusions are based largely on the flaws in Australia’s freedom of information regime (which are much worse than ours). Interestingly, she treats politicians’ spin, use of very short press conferences, and appearances on sympathetic talkback radio shows as free speech issues. I’m not so sure about that.

Moss also finds fault with the laws protecting whistleblowers and journalists’ sources. Both are better in NZ, but still problematic. She attacks sedition (which we’re dumping) although it hasn’t been invoked in Australia since 1960, and overly broadly worded anti-terrorism laws, though it’s not clear they have been used oppressively yet.

Some of this seems to have spilled into their censorship laws, which have been used to ban two books for inciting terrorism. I’m not aware of that happening in NZ, though our censorship legislation is broad enough that it could.

Moss also tackles suppression orders, finding that there are more than 1,000 in place on any given day. I think a similar study in NZ would also find that they are awarded too readily.

She finds Australia’s privacy laws complex and confusing. She cites the media’s opposition to the possible development of a general action for invasion of privacy (which we’ve got, and which hasn’t led to a deluge of cases, though editors here say they frequently have to grapple with these issues). She also laments the misunderstanding of privacy legislation which leads people to tell journalists that information can’t be disclosed BOTPA (“because of the Privacy Act”). Journalists here have the same frustrations.

She doesn’t find that the laws of contempt have been much of a problem. I suspect they’re causing more angst here.

Overall, Moss’s conclusions reflect the fact that Australia is rated more lowly on international press freedom rankings than NZ (we’re currently 9th on the Reporters Sans Frontieres index; Aussie is at 41; and we’re 9th equal on Freedom House’s rankings; Australia is 39th).

While I’d be the first to agree with Moss about the problems with freedom of information laws in Australia, there’s a debate to be had about whether they are really free speech issues (my take: yes, but only the way access to a library is a free speech issue).  The rest of the problems she identifies don’t seem to go anywhere near the heart of free speech, which strikes me as being in pretty good health in Australia.

Topics: Censorship, Contempt of Court, Name suppression, Official Information Act, Privacy Act, Privacy tort, Suppression orders, Whistle-blowing | No Comments »

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