May 6, 2022

Editorial

Commentary

The Australian media a world laggard

Australia a laggard on World Press Freedom Index – thank you Mr Murdoch and Mr Morrison. 

Max Walden of the ABC reports (4 May 2022) that “media freedom in Australia is"fragile" and less protected than in New Zealand and several emerging democracies in Asia.” 

His report is based on Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index which found in says concentrated media ownership, national security laws and harassment of journalists undermine press freedom in Australia and found that about 90 pc of Australian journalists surveyed said they feared threats and intimidation were rising. 

“Australia slid from 25 to 39 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) World Press Freedom Index for 2022, ranking below close neighbours New Zealand in 11th place and Timor-Leste at number 17,” Walden said. Taiwan, ranked just above Australia at 38 as did Bhutan where political parties were banned until 2007. 

"Ultra-concentration of media ownership, combined with growing official pressure, endanger public-interest journalism" in Australia, RSF said. 

RSF said Australia had one of the highest concentrations of media ownership in the world, with Nine Entertainment and News Corp dominating much of the news media landscape. 

The ABC quoted a spokesperson for Nine which said its journalism was independent of Nine's corporate interests, and this was ensured through a charter of editorial independence – not mentioning that Nine had donated to the Liberal Party at the last election.  

RSF highlighted  raids against the ABC's Sydney headquarters and the Canberra home of political journalist Annika Smethurst in 2019 which created"an alarming legal precedent that threatens the survival of public-interest journalism". 

RSF said freedom of the press was not guaranteed by the Australian constitution and that a number of "problematic"national-security-related laws in recent years had violated the principle that journalists' confidential sources were protected. 

RSF also cited research by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), which found nearly 90 per cent of Australian journalists surveyed were "fearful that threats, harassment, and intimidation"were on the rise with a quarter having been physically assaulted while working as a journalist. 

The ABC quoted MEAA media president and former ABC journalist Karen Percy who said national security laws were "really curtailing the way journalists do their jobs". 

The MEAA is calling for a review of the impact of national security laws on journalism, to implement a "diversity of voices" test when the government was considering mergers in the media sector, and to put stronger whistleblower protections in place. 

"There has to be a commitment to what actual press freedom really means," she said. 

"Our defamation laws, used against journalists,silence criticism. They silence any kind of real scrutiny of governments,businesses and the like."

RMIT lecturer Mr Ambyo, told the ABC that governments in Australia needed "to start seeing journalists as an important part of democracy". 

"We don't have journalists being killed or imprisoned in Australia, but we have seen a lot of abuses,"with online harassment that was "often racist or gendered in nature". 

Australia has voiced concern over rapidly deteriorating press freedom in Hong Kong, including the forced closure of the Apple Daily newspaper in mid-2021. 

But Percy said Australia's ability to promote the importance of media freedom to neighbours was eroding. 

"We can't be saying one thing and doing another," she said. 

"We should be looking to New Zealand, we should be looking to Timor-Leste, and the other countries — Estonia, Finland —who were in that top 10 [of the RSF Index] and see what they are doing and try to emulate it."