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Australia’s ‘free media’ not so free after all

COMMENT In Australia we like to talk about the media of other nations as being different to the ‘free’ media we enjoy here.

 

After this week, the argument might be a little harder to stomach.

 

Yesterday, anti-secrecy organisation Wikileaks released a document exposing a suppression order handed down by the Supreme Court of Victoria.

 

The order appears to ban the Australian media from reporting what Wikileaks says is an ongoing court case into alleged bribes given by agents of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s (RBA) Securency and Note Printing Australia subsidiary to government officials in a number of Southeast Asian countries.

 

The document also lists a host of high ranking politicians from Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, whose names the Australian media cannot mention in relation to the case.

 

Since any Australian media organisation would face legal action for mentioning the case, several of the newspapers today ran articles acknowledging the existence of the leak without saying what it was in relation to.

 

The secret document and the news report on it were widely shared through social media networks, however a legal expert commenting for The Age newspaper said that those who shared the Wikileaks link online could potentially face legal action too.

 

In an online press statement, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said, “This is not simply a question of the Australian government failing to give this international corruption case the public scrutiny it is due.

 

"The Australian government is not just gagging the press, it is blindfolding the Australian public.

 

“[Australian] Foreign Minister Julie Bishop must explain why she is threatening every Australian with imprisonment in an attempt to cover up an embarrassing corruption scandal involving the Australian government."

 

A suppression order on all Australian media is unprecedented in recent times and this has resulted in the Australian public being entirely unaware of one of the largest corruption scandals in the nation as well as the region.

 

However in the Internet age, this kind of suppression order is set to fail and fail dramatically.

 

By attempting to put a lid on the court case and news that the court case even exists, the Australian government has now unwittingly placed itself in an embarrassing situation.

 

Because of the suppression order, the government is unable to defend its actions and give its side of the story. Likewise, the media in Australia would be unable to publish any government response that involved details of the case or its explanation as to why it was deemed necessary to censor.

 

National security

 

While it isn’t clear how much traction the Wikileaks document has gotten, it will undoubtedly be widely debated over the coming days. Reports about the leak have already gathered thousands of likes on social media and international news organisations, which are not bound by the suppression order, are reporting the issue extensively.

 

Readers will likely read more into the government’s attempt to censor information involving this court trial than the details of the case itself.

 

After all in many ways this case isn’t that different to the 2011 case against nine RBA employees for conspiring to bribe Indonesian and Nepali officials over note-printing contracts. This 2011 case was of course reported in the Australian media.

           

It is imperative for the government to explain the reasons for the court order, which stipulates that in the interests of national reputation not being damaged before any verdict is given, censorship is needed.

 

Unfortunately, the Australian public has shown remarkable tolerance recently for censorship in the name of national security.

 

Last month, when attorney general George Brandis outlined planned changes in secrecy laws that would include five to 10 years imprisonment for journalists who reveal intelligence secrets, despite some protest from news organisations, there has been no vocal or organised campaign against the move.

           

But the clear distinction between the new law and the suppression order is that the former is about national security while the court order seems to be about protecting the government’s reputation and its ties with Southeast Asia.

 

State-owned television broadcaster ABC may have been the only news organisation to break the gag order since the Wikileaks document came to light, but it is unclear whether other organisations will follow suit.

 

It is also unclear if any legal action will be taken against ABC or social media users who shared the link to the Wikileaks document. While legal action would send a message on the extent to which the government is willing to go to defend secrecy, it would also likely draw more prolonged attention to the case. 

 

Either way, Australians will be confronting a situation where while we like to think we have press freedom, the reality is anything but. Indeed, all our rhetoric of a ‘democratic media’ seems increasingly empty.                                                                                             

 


 

JARNI BLAKKARLY is an Australian journalist and a former Malaysiakini intern. You can follow him on twitter @jarniblakkarly.

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