Sunday, July 01, 2007

Australia's Secrets - Media Losing Battle To Access Truth

Lives Destroyed When Whistleblowers Tell The Public What They Have A Right To Know

A remarkable coalition of Australian media giants are fighting to protect journalists right to report the news and to free up access to government documents and records, as Howard Corp. tightens the rules of access, and extends the time that government records can be kept from the public. This huge media vs government battle comes as two court cases about government secrets and whistleblowing roll through the courts.

Two journalists from the Herald Sun were recently slapped with criminal records, and fined $7000 each, because they would not give up their sources.

A senior public servant had leaked documents to the journalists two years ago that exposed a Howard government plan to cut funding for the ongoing care and rehabilitation of Australia's war veterans. A disgusting, cynical and stunningly Un-Australian move by Howard's people, particularly when the country has thousands of soldiers deployed to two major war zones.

The senior public servant was rightly disgusted by what he learned, and believed the public should have been informed. So he blew the whistle, and almost found himself in jail for doing the right thing.

In another case, an officer with Customs found his department was trying to suppress a report that exposed just how vulnerable Australia's major airports were to drug smugglers and terror attacks. He found serious security flaws and he went public, and had his life destroyed by the vindictive federal government, and his retirement funds depleted trying to keep his freedom.

Again, a whisleblower did the right thing by bringing to the attention of the public important information they should have been aware of.

There's a good story on all this from 7.30 Report. You read the full transcript of the report, and watch the show here :
Unlike countries like Britain, Australia has no national laws to protect so called 'whistle blowers'. In the eyes of some observers, such prosecutions are symptomatic of a new climate of secrecy that has seen Governments clamp down on the release of sensitive information in the public interest.

Allan Kessing is the second public servant to be prosecuted for leaking to the media in the past two years (over airport security flaws). Desmond Kelly, a senior Veteran Affairs officer, was found guilty of leaking a government email to Herald Sun journalists McManus and Harvey.

It was another embarrassing expose revealing Federal Cabinet plans to knock back a proposed $500 million increase in war veterans' entitlements. The conviction was later thrown out, but the Secretary of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department, Dr Peter Shergold, is unrepentant about the Government's aggressive pursuit of public servants, telling the National Press Club last year that he regarded all leaks, even those in the public interest, as democratic sabotage.

...prominent Australian author and journalist David Marr says the silencing of public servants reflects a disturbing pattern in the last decade. His thesis outlined in the latest 'Quarterly Essay' warns thuggish spin doctoring and punitive legislation like the 2005 sedition laws, have been used by all Australian governments to shut down criticism, and starve journalists of information the public has the right to know.
The coalition of Australian media giants have formed The Right To Know Committee to fight state and federal government suppression of information, to broaden the Freedom Of Information Act, and to find ways to protect the rights of whistleblowers. Well, to give rights to whistleblowers. They don't have rights at the moment.

More on all this from David Marr :
The rules of secrecy have been policed as they have never been before in Australia in peace time. There is a squad, the Australian Federal Police. They work tens of thousands of hours chasing down leaks to the press. That's their work. They prosecute. People are supposed to go to jail for telling the public things the public needs to know.

News Limited's John Hartigan, who is the force behind the Right to Know Committee, is no whingeing leftie, take it from me. This is a problem in Australia now which is recognised to span right across the media and political spectrums. The head of News Limited, the head of the ABC, the head of Fairfax... these people have unparalleled access to Government. Their capacity to privately lobby to fix these problems is almost limitless, but they haven't been able to do it privately.

The press is being locked out, the public servants are scared, they're shutting up and as a result, public debate in this country, which is a crucial part of democratic government in this country, is closing down.
What's most troubling about all this is that the governments involved in suppressing the truth, and punishing the whistleblowers, are not doing it for the good of the public. They are doing it to protect themselves from criticism and accountability.

The formula is simple : the more secrets they can hold onto, the more powerful they are.

It's a shocking state of affairs for a democratic country.

Our politicians continually forget that they are our employees. They are not rulers of a kingdom, or dictators, as much as they sometimes appear to wish to be so.

As far as the media goes, the gags on what journalists can and can't report, in this 'War On Terror' age, are getting tighter :
This automatic preference for concealment means Australia's record on press freedom is a national disgrace. The latest index published by Reporters Without Borders puts us in 35th place, behind South Korea and Namibia, and alongside such bulwarks of democracy as Bulgaria and Mali. Politicians from all sides are guilty. They may parrot cliches about freedom of information when in opposition; in government they obey the instinct of the powerful to gag and to ban.

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