AJF’s Peter Greste presses for media freedom act to protect journalists

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The Press Freedom Tracker launch video featuring Peter Greste and the tracker team. Video: AJF

Pacific Media Watch newsdesk

The Peter Greste-fronted Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom is launching a press freedom tracker for use in engaging with politicians and government officials to push for better protections for journalists in the Asia-Pacific region, reports Miranda Ward of the Australian Finanancial Review.

Greste, who spent more than 400 days behind bars after he and two colleagues were charged with terrorism offences while on assignment for Al Jazeera in Egypt, said the press freedom tracker would record incidents, both attacks on press freedom and positive steps forward, and help the AJF and other stakeholders assess the state of press freedom in the region.

Peter Greste wants to help the Australian public understand the challenges facing press freedom in Australia.

Peter Greste AJF
Journalism professor Peter Greste … biggest challenge facing press freedom in Australia is making the public understand the threats facing media. Image: Screenshot/Pacific Media Watch

“It’s designed to be something that looks at the state of press freedom, the direction of travel and whether it’s up or down across the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.

“We’re also being very careful not to rate countries because we don’t think that’s necessarily helpful. What we’re looking at, though, is a way of comparing and contrasting the way that various countries handle press freedom across the region and the broad direction of trends.”

Greste said the AJF would use it as a tool “for opening political and diplomatic conversations and as a tool for advocacy”.

The AJF was formed in 2017 by Greste, lawyer Chris Flynn and former journalist and strategic communications consultant Peter Wilkinson. Flynn and Wilkinson worked with the Greste family to free Greste from an Egyptian prison.

Complement advocacy work
The press freedom tracker, which was launched in Brisbane yesterday, will complement the AJF’s advocacy work and how the organisation engages with governments to discuss press freedom issues.

Greste said the AJF was also working on its “regional dialogue” project, which is a series of semi-formal meetings between news companies, governments and security agencies designed to help each understand the other better and find better ways of working together.

“One of the chief arguments is that there’s often talk about the trade-off between press freedom and national security, the balance between press freedom and national security, which implies that if you have more of one, by definition, you have less of the other,” he said.

“We disagree with that characterisation. We think that press freedom is actually part of the national security framework. It indirectly helps government function better, it helps the system work more effectively, it helps expose corruption within governments and organise crime.”

The biggest challenge facing press freedom in Australia, said Professor Greste who is also UNESCO chair in journalism and communication at the University of Queensland, was making the general population understand the threats facing media.

“Opening up a daily newspaper, it doesn’t feel as though Australia press is limited in any way. We don’t have explicit censorship and not seeing journalists thrown in prison. Up until the [Australian Federal Police] raids [on the ABC and a News Corp journalist], we weren’t seeing police kicking down the doors of journalists in a rage reaction. So it doesn’t look as though journalism is in a crisis,” he said.

Greste said that if the public had a better understanding of how “dangerous it is for sources within government to speak to journalists anonymously, confidentially”, and the effect that has on stories that are not being told, he believed it would be more widely recognised that journalism in this country was “not as healthy as we’d like to believe”.

No constitutional protection
“The challenge is getting the public to understand the role that journalism plays, and appreciate that role, and recognise the loss of press freedom that we’ve seen since 9/11. The impact that the national security legislation has had on press freedom.”

In Australia specifically, the AJF is pursuing the creation of a media freedom act that would help provide protections to journalists and compel the courts to consider press freedom in any case that would affect the state of press freedom in the country.

“Australia is about the worst Western liberal democracy in the world when it comes to legal and constitutional protections for things like freedom of speech and press freedom,” Greste said.

“We have no constitutional protection at all.”

The AJF hopes a media freedom act would help protect news organisations from police raids such as the AFP’s 2019 raid on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters by insisting judges be obligated to consider press freedom and the public interest before signing warrants to allow such raids to take place.

Greste said that while a parliamentary inquiry in August last year recommended sweeping reforms, politicians need to find the will to implement the recommendations.

“The opportunity for the AJF is to help the public understand this and to find and develop political support for media freedom,” he said.

“We’re getting some support, we’ve had a number of politicians approach us. We’re in the process of drafting an act. We’ve been speaking to a number of independent MPs about working on the idea and certainly politicians in the Coalition and in the Labor Party privately have been expressing support for the idea.”

“It’s just that it’s hard to put on the political agenda and get the kind of moment that we need to see a piece of legislation go through.”

Republished with permission from the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom.

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