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‘Not doing its job’: Council watchdog sparks press freedom concerns

The newspaper reported the OIA had previously attempted to access another journalist’s notes relating to an interview with the same councillor last year.

Responding to the latest instance, a legal team for the newspaper applied to take their concerns to the Supreme Court arguing the request violated implied freedom of political communication and put the OIA in conflicted position.

Kathleen Florian, the independent assessor for councillor complaints in Queensland.

Kathleen Florian, the independent assessor for councillor complaints in Queensland.

The OIA’s conduct probe was eventually dropped before the newspaper’s case went to court, following a letter from Ms Florian stating she had recorded the initial conversation with Cr Swanborough – who said he was not made aware of this fact at the time – and appointment of another investigator, the paper reported.

In a statement responding to questions on Monday, an OIA spokeswoman said the body did not comment on specific cases but under the Local Government Act, anyone with information relevant to a councillor investigation may be required to provide it unless doing so could incriminate them or expose them to a penalty.

Confidentiality notices were said to be in line with statutory requirements that conduct matters are kept under wraps until dismissed or considered by the Councillor Conduct Tribunal, with penalties in-line with similar agencies in Queensland and other jurisdictions.

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Asked at a press conference to explain the actions of the OIA, and any involvement by himself in assigning another assessor, Mr Miles also refused to be drawn on specifics of the matter but said he had no statutory function over the body’s investigations.

On whether he considered the powers used by the watchdog appropriate, and if the government would seek to wind them back, Mr Miles said the government’s record on protecting journalists and their sources was “well-demonstrated”.

“There is a process under way right now where we are consulting with stakeholders on what shield laws should look like,” Mr Miles said.

“And if people have a view that statutory investigators, like the OIA, should be included in those reforms, well, they should put that forward through the Department of Justice and Attorney-General.”

A month-long consultation period opened by Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman into the protections close in July. Last August, the government backtracked on laws which would have gagged media from reporting on corruption complaints during election periods.

Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom spokesman and University of Queensland journalism professor Peter Greste said the OIA was “not doing its job” if, in trying to protect the integrity of councils, the assessor undermined journalism that was also attempting to hold councils to account.

He highlighted the fact Queensland is the only Australian jurisdiction without protections stopping journalists from facing fines or jail time for refusing to identify sources and whistleblowers.

“If journalists don’t have the capacity to protect their sources, or their notes or data – particularly on stories that deal with public interest – it becomes quite clear they won’t be able to investigate the inner workings of governments,” Professor Greste said.

On Monday, Mr Creighton said he was concerned about the use of coercive powers by the council watchdog and was not reassured by Mr Miles’ response to the issues raised.

“If he is not the one to make a comment on it, then who is?” he said.

Fiona Simpson, the LNP Opposition’s integrity spokesperson, said in a statement the case was “deeply concerning” and journalists should be free to tell important stories freely.

“If we are to have honest and accountable government in Queensland then the institutions charged to ensure this must be beyond reproach and be seen to be above reproach.”

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