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Media Alliance welcomes draft shield laws

(Media Alliance/IFEX) - October 6, 2010 - The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance is welcoming two new draft laws that promise to strengthen the legal protection of media workers in Australia, a country that lacks a bill of rights and where journalists have traditionally been open to prosecution for refusing to reveal confidential sources.

"We're pleased to see government taking seriously the role of journalism in transparent and accountable governance," said Christopher Warren, Federal Secretary of the Alliance.

"Australian journalists are more exposed to litigation than their counterparts in many Western democracies, and the Alliance has long campaigned to strengthen journalist protections. Judicial discretion has in the past forced journalists to choose between exposing whistleblowers and being prosecuted themselves."

The bid to provide additional protection to journalists and their sources follows Australian Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland's announcement last week that the government would support a bill drafted by independent MP Andrew Wilkie and senator Nick Xenophon, and the subsequent introduction of a similar bill by opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis into the Senate.

The Alliance sees tougher journalist shield laws as a way to prevent the prosecution of journalists who respect article three of the Alliance Journalist Code of Ethics, which holds that where confidences are accepted they must be respected in all circumstances, except where doing so prevents substantial advancement of the public interest, or risks substantial harm to the public.

The draft laws are based on New Zealand legislation, and include a rebuttable presumption in favour of journalists not disclosing information that would identify their sources in court proceedings. This means those seeking to identify a confidential source must persuade a judge that there is a public interest reason to do so that outweighs the potential harm to that source.

"These amendments recognise the important role that the media plays in informing the public on matters of public interest, and appropriately balance this against the public interest in the administration of justice," said Attorney-General McClelland in a statement, adding that he had written to all State and Territory Attorneys-General encouraging them to adopt similar provisions at state and territory levels around Australia.

The next challenge for media rights campaigners is to ensure that if introduced into state and territory jurisdictions, the laws are extended to rein in the anti-corruption bodies that have emerged around the country in recent years. These bodies, nicknamed "star chambers" for their clandestine nature and the fact that they have powers far beyond the scope of the police and courts, have increasingly called on professional journalists to reveal confidential sources in corruption hearings.

Journalists who refuse to hand over documents and to reveal their confidential sources as part of an ongoing enquiry can find themselves slapped with huge fines, and up to two years in jail for each question they refuse to answer. They are often denied legal representation, and can be forbidden by law from seeking advice from their union.

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