Australia Becomes an International Pariah

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

September 9, 2016

Once again, good journalism has shined a light on shoddy government practices. While the world’s attention has been focused mainly on the mass migration of refugees to Europe, and the horrific death toll being claimed by the Mediterranean Sea, Australia has been waging a draconian war against migrants approaching its shores. For a long time, this flew under the radar of the public and political pundits alike, as eyes were firmly fixed on Europe’s  migrant dilemma.

The world is finally taking notice of Australia’s harsh treatment of those seeking asylum and a new life Down Under.  The unseemly abuse and brutality with which the government has sought to hide its actions have brought into the open by the Guardian’s leaking of the so-called Nauru Files.

These disclosures detail the abuses at the Naru detention centers, and paints the government in a poor light, to say the least. But as an unanticipated offshoot of the leaks, journalists fear that they will be targeted in retaliation by the government’s stringent data retention laws .

So, in a sense, this is a bit of a Catch-22. For although the Nauru Files let the sunshine into a dark secret of the government, it changed things for journalists, too, who see themselves as imperiled by a government-permitted offensive against their lifeblood – their sources’ confidentiality.

In the past, police have been asked to investigate a number of government leaks. This practice was punctuated by a raid just last week on Parliament House to root out the source of an embarrassing leak concerning the National Broadband Network.

The big-footed tactics of the police smack of intimidation, and along with increased prosecution and penalties for whistleblowers, are making the job of journalists to unearth governmental misdeeds and missteps much harder. Journalists’ trepidation led to the initiation of the Journalist Warrant Information Scheme as a way to guarantee their continued unimpeded ability to report facts. This scheme, however, is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

For instance, under the scheme, police are required to apply for  warrant in order to access journalists information. Journalists and their employers, however, are not allowed to challenge these warrants to the issuing body, or even in court. Instead, the legislation requires the Prime Minister to appoint two “Public Interest Advocates” who can choose to make the case against issuing a warrant.

It turns out that these “advocates” are not very efficient or enthusiastic about their responsibilities – perhaps by design. Advocates need not be present, for example, when warrants whose scope might cover two years of journalists’ metadata are collected.

The International Federation of Journalists weighed in on the matter shortly after the scheme became law:

“These laws are a violation of press freedom and seek to circumvent journalists’ obligation to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Government needs to immediately review these laws to bring them in line with freedom of expression principles and press freedom. Neither journalists nor their sources should be threatened with jail sentences for simply doing their jobs.”

As per usual in this day and age, the government hides behind the cloak of national security in order to justify its excesses and carry out these programs. It certainly gives one pause to wonder about the direction in which things are heading for privacy and freedom of speech and information.

Sadly, with the threat of terrorism ever lurking, increasingly far-right constituencies such as France’s National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik are gaining momentum and popularity.

But, while making gains, they are at least some distance from winning control of their governments. Australia, however, is a different story. Here a repressive government is already in power, and which is upsetting the apple-cart of freedom.

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