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National Security Laws Are Being Used as Excuse to Clamp Down on Press Across the Globe

Web ExclusiveJune 14, 2019
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Web-only conversation with Australian professor Joseph Fernandez and Peter Greste, founding director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom. We speak to them about the recent police raid of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and how it relates to press crackdowns around the world.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue our discussion about press freedom in Australia, where Federal Police swept into the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney on Wednesday. Officers reviewed thousands of documents for information about a 2017 report that found Australian special forces soldiers may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan. Wednesday’s raid on ABC came one day after police in Melbourne raided the home of Annika Smethurst, a reporter with the Herald Sun newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: Still with us from Brisbane, Australia, is Peter Greste, UNESCO chair in journalism and communications at the University of Queensland. He’s a founding director of Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom. And Peter Greste was imprisoned for over a year, for 400 days, in 2013 and 2014, in Egypt, while covering the political crisis there, along with his two Al Jazeera colleagues. In Perth, Australia, we’re joined by Joseph Fernandez, media law academic at Curtin University and Australia’s correspondent for Reporters Without Borders.

Joseph Fernandez, in Part 1, you described more in detail the story that Annika Smethurst was investigating. Can you now go into what it was that ABC was investigating around special forces in Australia?

JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: The ABC story led to a publication called “The Afghan Files,” which was an investigative piece that spoke about serious allegations against Australian soldiers, that they may have committed unlawful killings during Australia’s longest war. And allegations were made that unarmed civilians were killed. And they quoted a whistleblower, who subsequently identified himself, and he claimed to have witnessed the killing of innocent people. And the strange thing about this was, when we talk about a breach of national security, that event occurred a few years ago, and the soldiers concerned were no longer in the conflict zone, so it’s hard to envisage what kind of danger they might have been placed in or what really the national security justifications were to prevent this information from reaching the public domain.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But the actual report by Australian Broadcasting was about a year ago, wasn’t it?

JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so, why the raids now?

JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: Yes. That was a question on many people’s minds, and particularly why the raids so soon after the new government had been returned to power. There were some speculations and some suggestion that the police did not wish this event to clutter up the election politicking, that this was now a safe period during which to launch this action. We don’t know the real answers to these questions, but they are being asked by many people.

AMY GOODMAN: Joseph, how did the media establishment, of which ABC is a core, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—how did it respond to these raids?

JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: Oh, there has been a near-unanimous outrage across the media. And interestingly, two establishments who are often on different sides of the fence, so to speak, were quite united in condemning this. And I’m referring to News Corp, with which Annika Smethurst works, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The different media entities, players, activists have all unanimously come together to defend press freedom, freedom of expression, and to stand up against this sort of intimidatory, bullying behavior on the part of government agencies.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter Greste, could you talk about whether Australia is alone in this kind of activity? I mean, we’re seeing, obviously, in many countries across the world, leaders coming to power who will either beat up on the press or see the press as a state security threat. Could you talk about the international context here?

PETER GRESTE: Yeah, sure. Look, and there are a couple of people who’ve suggested that Australia is one of the most—is one of, if not the most, restrictive environments, democratic environments, in the Western world. And that might be overstating it a little bit, but there’s a very well-known law professor, George Williams, who’s been keeping track of national security legislation, and he’s counted more than 70 pieces of national security legislation that were passed in Australian Parliament since 9/11. And that is an absolutely extraordinary number. And a lot of them really do intrude on press freedom and freedom of speech in all sorts of insidious ways.

Now, as I said earlier, I think this is—it’s too much to suggest that Australia is about to become an authoritarian state. But the kinds of things that we’ve seen take place here in Australia, I think, is a fair way down the spectrum, the same spectrum that we’re seeing taking place in all sorts of other corners of the world, including places like Turkey, which is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, and Egypt and elsewhere, where national security legislation is being used as an excuse to both clamp down on the press and lock up pesky journalists who are reporting things that are deeply politically embarrassing, politically uncomfortable to governments.

I mean, if you look at the CPJ’s, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ statistics, their analysis of the journalists in prison show that, of the 250-odd that are behind bars, more than two-thirds of them are there on what the CPJ calls anti-state charges. Those are state charges like treason, sedition, terrorism and so on—national security charges, which is precisely the kinds of things that we saw being used here. Now, they weren’t exactly being—they weren’t being charged with terrorism, of course, but these were national security laws that were being used to effectively shut down stories that weren’t threatening national security but were politically embarrassing. What happened to me in Egypt, I think, was a pretty extreme example of that, but I think it is on the same spectrum as what happened to us in Australia last week and what we’re seeing in all sorts of places around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, the image of you and your Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, the two other journalists who you were arrested with in Egypt as you were covering the Arab Spring—the images of you in the cage in court, I’m just wondering, as you went through what you did, not being given information about why you were being held on trumped-up charges, being held for over a year—you know, that image of a journalist in a cage, as we’re showing right now, very much aligns with what the president of the United States—how he talks about journalists, as the enemy of the people. And I’m wondering if you think what President Trump says empowers other governments, democracies and non-democracies, to go after journalists. Does it scare you when he talks about journalists in this way?

PETER GRESTE: Look, without a doubt, there is no question that President Trump’s remarks have empowered other authoritarian states to take these kinds of draconian measures. I remember there was a fantastic editorial in a newspaper in Africa that said that, look, if an African government was going to be using these kinds of remarks, then the United States and the Western world would have condemned them as being anti-democratic, as outrageously authoritarian. And to see those kinds of remarks coming out of the United States, which for the rest of the world for so long has been seen as a bastion of freedom of the press and free speech, is not only deeply troubling, but it does allow other governments to—or it’s a nod and a wink, I guess, a dog whistle, to other governments to say that you’re free to go ahead with these kinds of actions, you’re free to imprison journalists.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And are there any expectations of new legislation being able to be passed in Australia, especially given the new government, in terms of greater protections for journalists in the future?

PETER GRESTE: You know, a few weeks ago, before the raid, my organization, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, published a white paper that included seven recommendations for legislative reform. We proposed a Media Freedom Act, to do pretty much the job of the First Amendment in the United States, and a number of other legislative reforms that we think will help protect both journalists and their sources. And curiously enough, the idea of—or, not surprising, I guess, is the idea of a Press Freedom Act has really taken a very high-profile position in the debate around this particular—after these particular raids. And I think that there’s a pretty good chance that it will stay on the agenda now. I mean, these raids have really fired up the public. It’s unified the press in ways I don’t think anyone in the Federal Police or in government ever really anticipated. And I think it’s incumbent on us journalists and anybody who really cares about the health of democracy to line up behind us and really push the government to see some kind of legislative reform.

Now, of course, we’ve seen these kinds of situations before, where opportunities have come and gone and we haven’t seen any kind of substantive change. So I wouldn’t—I’m not going to put—I’m not going to bet the farm on this. But I reckon that we are in a better position now than we’ve been for many years to really push legislation, because I think Australians recognize that even if they don’t necessarily love the press, they certainly don’t trust politicians to—or they don’t trust—they don’t necessarily think that relying on politicians’ Facebook posts and Twitter feeds is really an effective way to run government, that we really do need a free press to hold government to account.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Joseph Fernandez, what are you calling for right now in Australia? What do you think has to happen?

JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: I think, as Peter has just mentioned, this event, these raids that just happened, has shown a very bright light on the perilous state of the protection of rights and freedoms in this country. And chances are it will not stop at merely press freedom but all other sorts of freedoms.

Once again, we are hearing people raise the prospect of a bill of rights. A bill of rights, as you would be aware, covers a whole range of things, not just press freedom. And it has been spoken of in more strong terms these days. But whether we will get something as comprehensive and as deep and far-reaching as we would like is another question. Having said that, in three Australian jurisdictions, we already have some kind of instrument, a bill of rights, a charter of rights and responsibilities, so this is not an alien concept to Australian society. There are differences of opinion whether a bill of rights on its own would resolve the problem.

As far as journalists are concerned, I think there’s no getting away from the fact that if journalists’ sources are not assured of confidentiality when they seek that confidentiality, then we are in deep trouble. And this is why most Australian jurisdictions in recent years have enacted laws providing a qualified privilege for the protection of journalists’ confidential sources. But what has happened is, something else has happened totally separately from the passage of these laws that have collided with the protections that politicians agreed on should be given to journalists. And I think now is a good time to review the entire state of laws that impact on rights and freedoms, including for journalists, and to put our house in order.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Fernandez, just one last question. Unfortunately, we’ve lost Peter Greste now from the satellite. But the U.S. has submitted its formal extradition request for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, according to media reports. The indictment, filed in May, charges him with one count of conspiring to hack into a government computer and 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act, the first-ever case of a journalist or publisher being indicted under the World War I-era U.S. law. Assange currently being held behind bars at London’s Belmarsh Prison for skipping bail in 2012, after he’s being forcefully removed from the Ecuadorean Embassy by British police in April. His lawyers and the U.N. rapporteur on torture have warned of his deteriorating health due to his ongoing detention and years of what the rapporteur described as “psychological torture.” He is a fellow Australian. I’m wondering your thoughts on the significance of this really global case, with the U.S. now calling for his extradition and charging him with espionage.

JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: Yeah. Thank you for the question. There is no doubt that what’s happening to journalism in the world today is quite heavily influenced by what the whistleblowers and whistleblower organizations, such as WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, have done in the past. And so, it appears to me that Julian Assange is being made a scapegoat, even though there are, among journalists themselves, those who are not that prepared to consider him a journalist. I will leave that debate for another occasion; it’s a very complex one. But if you look at what information comes out of the act of whistleblowing, I think that’s where our focus should be, whether the information that is being leaked through whistleblowing activities is information that the public is not entitled to know. And I think, in most cases, the answer to that question will be, there is no justification to keep that kind of information under wraps.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Joseph Fernandez, media law academic at Curtin University, Australia’s correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. He was speaking to us from Perth. Peter Greste, UNESCO chair in journalism and communications at the University of Queensland, was held by Egyptian authorities in prison for over a year with two of his Al Jazeera colleagues, speaking to us from Brisbane, Australia.

This is Democracy Now!. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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