Free Julian Assange – global press freedom depends on it.

May 2023 – World Press Freedom Day was May 3rd

It was encouraging to see the latest report from Reporters Without Borders which shows Australia has shown some improvement in global press freedom rankings. This year Australia is in 25th position, a big step forward from 2022’s 39th place.

But there is still much work to do for Australia to restore its reputation as a progressive, world leader when it comes to democracy.

An important first step for the Albanese government would be to convince officials in the UK and the US to end the extradition case against Julian Assange, the Wikileaks publisher who faces espionage charges over material exposing illegal activities by US soldiers operating abroad.

In 2011, Wikileaks won Australia’s most prestigious journalism award, the Walkley award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism for that work.

Julian Assange has been a member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance since 2007.

As President of the media section of MEAA – representing 5000+ journalists, photographers and media workers in Australia – it is an ongoing source of frustration and sadness that this case continues to drag on.

MEAA sees Julian’s case as fundamentally an issue of press freedom as I told a forum in Sydney earlier this year.

In late February I was among a group of 25 or so media leaders who met with Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus for a Press Freedom roundtable.

The first issue I raised with the AG was Julian’s case. I urged the minister to talk to his cabinet colleagues and his parliamentary colleagues about resolving the case, so that Julian can be reunited with his family. 

Since then Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK, Stephen Smith (a former Foreign Affairs Minister), has visited Julian in Belmarsh prison. 

While in the UK for King Charles’ coronation, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also reaffirmed his position that “enough is enough” – that Julian Assange’s case has gone on too long and that the punishment was ‘disproportionate’ to any alleged crime. Indeed, Julian Assange has not been convicted of anything yet he remains in difficult conditions in jail, his physical and mental health poor at best.

In an interview with the ABC while in London, Mr Albanese said his government valued freedom of expression but that it had to be balanced with national security. He said the Australian government had made its position clear through diplomatic channels.

The Assange case being pursued by the US is intended to curtail free speech, criminalise journalism and frighten off any future whistleblowers and publishers.

The message is very clear – you will be punished if you step out of line, no matter where you are in the world.

It’s easy to think this is a distant problem – action brought by one foreign power, playing out in the courts of another. It could never happen in Australia – right?

Well think again. 

Over the years, little by little, law by law, regulation by regulation, amendment by amendment, journalists and media outlets — and more importantly the public’s right to know — have been squeezed in the name of national security.

There are 100s of provisions in our laws that can put a journalist in jail. Most journalists don’t know them or understand them. We don’t know what we don’t know, because we CAN’T know. The veil of secrecy that hangs over these matters is almost impenetrable. There is little if any visibility over when governments seek journalist information warrants to get access to notes and documents and other material that journalists collect in their work. There is no ability to contest such a request. It’s unclear whether there is justification for these requests. And who on earth knows if they actually achieve what the agencies are trying to achieve.

We Just Don’t Know.

Just receiving classified documents can land a journalist in jail – they don’t have to have read them or even talked about them. Never mind published or broadcast material. The Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has stated again and again that no journalist should be jailed for doing their job. Media leaders, editors and lawyers attending February’s roundtable were pleased to hear it. But as yet there is no concrete proposition to make this a reality. Much promised changes to defamation laws across jurisdictions have yet to offer any meaningful reform – the rich, the powerful, those with legal teams and an axe to grind can drag media organisations through the courts for years. Talk about a lawyers’ picnic.

The rights of journalists are routinely trodden on. The latest example is the Federal Court changing – without notice or consultation – the rules for journalists to access documents. The court claims it’s an administrative change, but the effect will be that some cases that are very much in the public interest might never see the light of day. Consumer ripoffs, corporate misdeeds, and more could avoid scrutiny.

Ask any journalist about their experiences with the various Freedom of Information regimes across the country and you’re likely to get an earful of expletives.

The system is long on delays but short on substance – material is routinely redacted out. It’s an expensive, time-consuming and often fruitless endeavour.

A genuine commitment to Press Freedom entails embracing many things you might not like. Taking journalists on a Premier’s trip to China. Answering the questions you’re asked, not providing nonsense responses and dubious ‘background’ information. 

The current Federal Government says it supports press freedom and is seeking industry input on improving policies and processes. But words and intentions need to be backed up by actions – like legal reform, more openness and accountability, protections not punishment for whistleblowers.    

One day Julian Assange will be free. Let’s hope it’s soon. 

In the meantime, we must keep up the pressure to ensure that journalists who fight day in, day out for ethical, public interest journalism aren’t facing a similar fate. 


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