Australia’s largest newspapers blacked out their front pages on Monday to protest against government interference and excessive secrecy after police raids on journalists and new laws targeting whistleblowers.
The unprecedented action is part of the “your right to know” campaign led by Australia’s largest media groups, which is seeking to enshrine press freedom in law after what they say is 18 years of tightening regulation in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The demonstration comes as evidence mounts of the erosion of media freedoms even in some liberal western democracies. Donald Trump’s public attacks on the press have been the most concerning development of recent years, according to global media campaign organisation Freedom House.
“In our country there has been a creeping culture of secrecy,” said Campbell Reid, News Corp Australia’s group executive for corporate affairs, policy and government.
The campaign cites the large number of court cases in Australia subject to media suppression orders, secrecy laws targeting public sector whistleblowers and weak freedom of information laws. The blacked out front pages of Monday’s newspapers appealed for public support by posing the question: “When the government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering up?”
Media freedom has moved to the centre stage in Australia since June when police raided the home of a News Corp journalist and state broadcaster ABC in criminal investigations aimed at discovering the source of leaks on separate stories on national security. The police have refused to rule out prosecuting journalists who exposed alleged secret government plans to expand surveillance powers of intelligence agencies and unlawful killings by special forces in Afghanistan.
Christian Porter, Australia’s attorney-general, has said the government could look at sensible reforms but accused the “your right to know” coalition of seeking a blanket exemption from all national security and secrecy laws. “I’m not so sure those demands aren’t at the outer edge of workability and credibility,” he told ABC on Sunday.
Mr Reid said journalists were only seeking “the kind of working regime that exists in almost every country that we consider ourselves equal to”.
Peter Fray, professor of journalism at University of Technology Sydney, said the Australian media had been too tolerant in the aftermath of 9/11 to the incremental erosion of media freedom caused by new security laws.
He said the rise of populist politicians, such as Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines who sought to censor or denigrate the media, was also creating awareness of the need to defend journalists’ rights to do their jobs.