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Threats to press freedom in 2006-2007 reflect "government bent on controlling information," says MEAA

(MEAA/IFEX) - The following is an MEAA media release:

Official Spin: Australia
Australia's 2007 Press Freedom Report

Pushing through radical media ownership changes was just one of many victories for a conservative government in the censorship of the Australian press in 2006-07. Extended ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] phone tapping powers, the charging of two journalists for refusing to reveal their sources, and conviction of a whistleblower whose revelations sparked the greatest shake-up on airport security in Australian history are the hallmarks of a government bent on controlling information.

With the support of the nation's highest court, the federal government continues to keep information it considers sensitive from public view, making a mockery of the proper function and purpose of Freedom of Information laws. Giving with one hand in abolishing the public interest test for the truth defence in introducing uniform defamations laws, the government takes with the other, proposing powers for the ACCC [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] to sue on behalf of corporations for damage to their reputation. At a state level, beefed up privacy laws could keep the media at arms length at fear of costly prosecution.

A brave new world was proclaimed at the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], with the abolition of the staff-appointed director on the board and an overhaul of editorial policies. All ABC programming is now subject to tough bias and balance scrutiny previously reserved for news and current affairs, following a round of lambasting in Senate Estimates hearings. The spectre of advertising has again reared its head at the public broadcaster.

Sedition laws remain, as yet, untested, but anti-terror legislation is routinely invoked to close courts and deny media access to the cases of accused terrorists. New regulations for the building industry mean employees can be interrogated in secrecy and prevented from speaking to the media on threat of imprisonment.

A book was banned in Australia for the first time since 1973 at the insistence of the attorney general, who restructured the Office of Film and Literature Classification to bring its censorship functions under the auspices of his own department.

The death of two colleagues and great injury to a third in an horrific plane crash in Indonesia drove home the very real risks media professionals run every day in their work. A landmark public inquiry into the killing of five Australian journalists during the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor has, for the first time, heard evidence the men were targeted because they were journalists and murdered because of what they saw. The federal government continues to succeed in keeping some information in the case from being heard in open court.

Published by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance ahead of World Press Freedom Day, Official Spin reflects upon the attacks on and threats to the Australian media in 2007. It depicts an industry whose freedom continues to be eroded, and is available at http://www.alliance.org.au

The Media Alliance represents more than 10,000 journalists across Australia.

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