United Nations experts have warned serious declines in press freedom threaten the safety of journalists worldwide and diminish democracy.  

Free, independent media allow the public to make informed decisions, hold leaders accountable and hear diverse opinions. Without press freedom, many like United Nations Special Rapporteur, Irene Khan believe democracy is diminishing.  

 Khan said in a report to the Human Rights Council that: “The decline of media freedom and the rise in threats to the safety of journalists is a worldwide trend, most sharply evident in backsliding democracies and recalcitrant totalitarian States.”

The report added that digital technology had opened great opportunities for journalists and media freedom, however, posed serious challenges and threats like online and offline attacks and the killing of journalists with impunity.  

Unlike other countries, Australia does not have an enshrined and constitutional protection for freedom of speech, and press freedom. 

Many like Derek Wilding, co-director of the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney, believe this lack of enshrined protection is not effective. 

 “We have to rely on some other protections, and they are not anywhere near as effective as a constitutional protection for freedom of speech or press freedom,” Wilding told Central News.  

Although there are protections put in place, there are growing problems concerning the free practice of journalism. 

“We do have some safeguards built into our system, including implied freedom but it’s more a check or a limit that’s imposed upon the ability of governments to pass laws that restrict political communication rather than a positive kind of right that we would have to discuss political matters and say the press call upon in action. With that in mind we don’t have that kind of enshrined protection,” said Wilding.  

A central component of press freedom is the ability of individuals to safely and securely speak to journalists about government misconduct. This collaboration between people who witness wrongdoing and journalists who report on it is at the heart of Australia’s democracy. 

 Throughout history, whistle-blowers and journalists have worked together to expose unlawful and unethical behaviour and hold perpetrators to account. Without press freedom protection and the pressures to conform to reporting in a certain way, many journalists say they feel threatened, harassed, and intimidated.  

The 2022 MEAA press freedom survey announced a staggering 92.5 per cent of media workers feared threats, harassment, and intimidation of journalists are on the rise. 

In 2018, 70 per cent rated the overall health of press freedom in Australia as poor or very poor. But that proportion jumped to almost 90 per cent in 2020, following incidents such as the AFP raids in mid-2019 on the ABC offices in Sydney and the home of News Corp political reporter Annika Smethurst.  

The 2022 MEEA survey also found 27.4 per cent of journalists said their employer provided sufficient training and support in situations where they faced threats and/or assaults.  

With a low percentage of media law trained journalists, many like Wilding believe media law training is essential for young journalists.  

“I think media law training is really important for journalism education because if you turn the clock back 20 years or so, you would find that most journalists were going into large news organisations, where there were no commitments or motivations to do on the job media law training,” Wilding said.

“I think, the more that people know about or build on their own journalism ethics, and are aware of, say, risks that are involved in privacy breaches or something like that, then there’s a kind of greater community event.”

Wilding also highlighted the problem of defamation and its costs.

“Getting involved in defending a defamation action is such a lengthy process with enormous legal costs which can mean it’s not a real practical value to a defender and can destroy media companies which lead them to shut down,” he added.

The MEAA 2021 report also brought attention to the problem stating “more than 150 local and regional papers closed in the space of a year where business reasoning put editorial integrity and economic viability of the media behind the concerns of cost reduction”. It’s a situation that has devastated local press.  

During the federal election last may, MEAA submitted key priorities for reform to protect media freedom and support public interest journalism to the major parties. 

Among the reforms were: 

• Boosting the Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program for a minimum of three years with $150 million per annum available to the small and medium news sectors, with substantial funds quarantined for providers of regional news services. 

• Restoration of adequate funding to public broadcasters the ABC and SBS with greater certainty over a five-year funding cycle. 

 • New provisions to ensure that any future media mergers meet a “diversity of voices” test before they are approved by government regulators. 

 • Financial reforms to enable the costs of journalism to be offset via taxation incentives. 

 • Implementing reforms to protect whistleblowers who disclose confidential information to media in the public interest. 

 • Conducting an urgent review of Australia’s security laws towards taking action to remove impediments and sanctions against public interest journalism. 

 • Harmonising across all national, state, and territory jurisdictions journalism shield laws which protect journalists from identifying sources. 

 • Increasing international advocacy in support of journalists and allied workers when they are exposed to arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and threats to their life, and adopting the International Federation of Journalists’ International Convention on the Safety and Independence of Journalists and Other Media Professionals. 

Main image graphic of  crowd and whistleblower by Zara Powell.