2019 Australian Journalism Under Siege: How Policy and Metadata Threatens Australian Democracy
Fri, 27 Dec 2019 || By Lachlan Colgrave

Australia has more national security laws than any other nation and happens to be the only liberal democracy which lacks a Charter of Human Rights.[i] The Australian media’s future in maintaining its role as the fourth estate is endangered. A lack of protective policy presents a major issue to Media freedoms in Australia through rights to free speech and privacy. With the Australian Federal Police (AFP) accessing metadata from journalists’ phones 58 times in a single year, data laws in Australia underline an implicit threat to the free press given an indifferent State and empowered AFP.[ii] This article seeks to outline how policy and metadata are used to undermine Australian journalism and thus, Australia’s democracy.

The digital revolution has arguably challenged news business models in paying for investigative journalism and weakened the Media’s legitimacy through “fake news”. This has attributed to falling levels of public trust and interest in journalism.[iii] The liberal media approach in Australia ensures distance from government by privatisation of media assets. This model also entrenches a public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which is designed to operate freely from direct forms of government intervention. Such freedoms define the fourth estate where the Media hold credible power in curating the actions of government, holding these higher institutions to account.[iv] However, when Australian journalists must now ask themselves, “I’ve got a public interest story to publish, do I risk going to jail?”[v] a major problem is stressed. The malign of deficient legislative protections for journalists and increased AFP powers underscores the ever-more tenuous position of the Media in fulfilling its democratic role as the fourth estate.

Australian law does not provide explicit protections to freedom of the press or free speech, Australia being the only democratic nation lacking constitutional enshrinement of human rights.[vi] A ‘Media Freedom Act’ is thereby essential in amending these ambiguities alongside defining ‘public interest’ as a journalist’s right to publish. This is crucial as the AFP is using current, dangerously invasive legislation in issuing warrants and raids on journalists and their newsrooms, framing ‘public interest’ reportage as issues of ‘national security’.[vii] The June raids on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC Sydney headquarters exemplifies this fragile state of press freedoms in Australia. With a berated Media facing continued intimidation from the AFP and nonchalant policy makers, Australian democracy cannot be said to be healthy when a diagnosis of ‘freedoms’ rather indicates deterioration towards a censored press.[viii]

Since the post-September 11 era began, Australia has passed 54 separate pieces of national security legislation, including its metadata retention laws in 2015.[ix] These laws allow law enforcement agencies to access telecommunications records and so-called ‘data about data’ in investigating certain offences, including unlocking journalists’ personal metadata when in possession of a warrant.[x] Notwithstanding, this year the Western Australian Police obtained invalid warrants targeting journalists.[xi] Similarly, the Australian Capital Territory Police retrieved metadata 116 times without correct authorisation.[xii] This demonstrates a lack of understanding by State and Territory police of the 2015 laws which has resulted in perverted use of legislative powers. The AFP’s raid on ABC headquarters further implicates overarching abuse of laws which received international condemnation, including from the New York Times who rallied with News Corp, deeming the raids “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”.[xiii][xiv] 2019 has set a dark precedent for the future of an Australian free press.

Policy and Metadata laws must be amended, enshrining Media protections. The free press is a cornerstone of a liberal democracy as much as parliamentary elections, an independent judiciary and a professional public service. When laws are neither amended nor repealed despite their maleficence, all liberal society, that which we take for granted, can be said to be at risk. The public of the world’s most secretive democracy, Australia, are sleepwalking into a police state.[xv]

*not available in Bahasa Indonesia

Author: Lachlan Colgrave

Editor: Amelinda Pandu Kusumaningtyas

[i] Ananian-Welsh, R. (2019). Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy. The Conversation [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-the-raids-on-australian-media-present-a-clear-threat-to-democracy-118334 [Accessed 22 November 2019].

[ii] Doran, M., and Belot, H. (2019). Australian Federal Police accessed journalists’ metadata, stoking new media freedom concerns. ABC [online] Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-09/afp-access-journalist-metadata-60-times-in-12-months/11290888 [Accessed 2 December 2019].

[iii] Carson, A. (2019). Why investigative reporting in the digital age is waving, not drowning. The Conversation. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-investigative-reporting-in-the-digital-age-is-waving-not-drowning-121045 [Accessed 4 December 2019].

[iv] Errington, W., and Miragliotta, N. (2011). The liberal democratic tradition and the media. In Media & Politics: An Introduction, 2nd edition, South Melbourne: Victoria Oxford University Press, 1-19.

[v] Mottram, L. (2019). Australia’s press “under attack”: senator calls for constitutional amendment. PM ABC Radio, Canberra, 6 June, viewed 2 December 2019. [online] Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/pm/australia-press-under-attack-senator-wants-constitutional-change/11187984

[vi] Hardy, K. (2019). Press freedom in Australia needs much more than piecemeal protection. The Interpreter: Lowy Institute. [online] Available at: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/press-freedom-australia-needs-much-more-than-piecemeal-protection [Accessed 4 December 2019].

[vii] Ananian-Welsh, R. (2019). Australia needs a Media Freedom Act. Here’s how it could work. The Conversation [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/australia-needs-a-media-freedom-act-heres-how-it-could-work-125315 [Accessed 4 December 2019].

[viii] Ackland, R. (2019). Suppression and secrecy: how Australia’s government put a boot on journalism’s throat. The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/01/suppression-and-secrecy-how-australias-government-put-a-boot-on-journalisms-throat [Accessed 4 December 2019].

[ix] Greste, P. (2019). Let’s not keep muzzling our watchdogs. The Australian [online] Available at: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/lets-not-keep-muzzling-our-watchdogs/news-story/6c4173d6c6e2602a6f41fed7bf2496fc?login=1 [Accessed 4 December 2019].

[x] Suzor, N. & Pappalardo, K. & McIntosh, N. (2017). The passage of Australia’s data retention regime: national security, human rights, and media scrutiny. Internet Policy Review6(1). 

[xi] Karp, P., and Taylor, J. (2019). Police made illegal metadata searches and obtained invalid warrants targeting journalists. The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jul/23/police-made-illegal-metadata-searches-and-obtained-invalid-warrants-targeting-journalists [Accessed 4 December 2019].

[xii] Ibid.,

[xiii] Ananian-Welsh, R. (2019). Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy. The Conversation [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-the-raids-on-australian-media-present-a-clear-threat-to-democracy-118334 [Accessed 22 November 2019].

[xiv] Cave, D. (2019). Australia May Well Be the World’s Most Secretive Democracy. New York Times [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/world/australia/journalist-raids.html [Accessed 4 December 2019].