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‘They shouldn’t faff around’: Kerry O’Brien urges government to skip press freedom inquiry

Last month, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom released a white paper on press freedom in Australia, which includes recommendations for a new Media Freedom Act, addressing press freedom concerns in existing national security legislation, protecting journalists’ confidential data and enhancing whistleblower protections.

Alliance for Journalists' Freedom director Peter Greste says the government should set up a taskforce within weeks, rather than have an inquiry.

Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom director Peter Greste says the government should set up a taskforce within weeks, rather than have an inquiry. Credit:Fairfax Media

“We anticipated this,” Greste said. “We’ve been thinking about this for a while.”

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, 75 sets of national security-related legislation have been passed in Australia.  Media organisations are particularly concerned about the potential for journalists to be jailed for publishing classified information.  Human rights advocates are also concerned about the prosecution of whistleblowers who make disclosures in the public interest.

O’Brien, who is the former host of the 7.30 Report and Four Corners and the current chair of the Walkley Foundation, said there was a “real urgency” around press freedom.

“I personally think they shouldn’t faff around with the inquiry,” he said.

“If Scott Morrison is to be believed when he says he is committed to press freedom, he will move immediately within the Parliament to come up with improved legislation that enshrines stronger press freedom and stronger and clearer whistleblower protections.”

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Labor is urging the government to support a parliamentary inquiry that reviews all national security legislation passed since 2013 (when the Coalition was elected). The ALP’s home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, says a joint committee of both houses should be tasked with the job.

Last week she dismissed calls from some media organisations to bypass an inquiry on the basis the issue was already well understood.

“What I would reflect is that this is going to end up in an inquiry in the Parliament one way or the other,” Senator Keneally told Sky News.

The government is considering the matter.

“Press freedom is a bedrock principle in a democracy and we are always open to looking at a further improvement to the laws if a sober analysis of the evidence suggests that that’s required,” Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told Radio National last week.

O’Brien, who is scathing of the recent AFP raids on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC offices in Sydney, said Australians should not take their democracy for granted.

“I have no doubt that those police raids are designed to intimidate journalists and they are designed to intimidate whistleblowers.”

The six-time Walkley award winner said an Australian bill of rights, which would enshrine a right to free speech, was “the ideal” but attention should be given to fixing existing legislation.

“I have little faith in Parliament’s capacity to lead a responsible, thoughtful, debate on why we should have a bill of rights,” O’Brien said.

As the debate continues over national security powers in Australia, the New York-headquartered Committee to Protect Journalists said it was keeping a close eye on the situation.

Asia researcher with the committee Aliya Iftikhar said the organisation had already been alarmed “by what seems to be an increasing criminalisation of journalism” in Australia.

“It’s not just about the raids,” Ms Iftikhar said. “We’re certainly going to keep monitoring the country.”

Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House

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