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Uniform shield law needed to protect confidential sources in Australia

The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance is calling for a uniform national approach to shield laws for journalists. The call comes amid an unprecedented assault on press freedom with five Media Alliance members facing court action to reveal their confidential sources.

The Media Alliance is asking the Standing Council on Law and Justice representing Attorneys General in the federal, state and territory jurisdictions to come together and create uniform shield laws to ensure the public have access to information they are entitled to in a democracy.

While many states have introduced shield laws, they vary widely on many different matters and the extent of their coverage.

The five are: Steve Pennells of the West Australian and Fairfax Media journalists Adele Ferguson, Richard Baker, Nick McKenzie and Philip Dorling. The court actions have been brought against Pennells and Ferguson by Gina Rinehart. Helen Liu has brought actions against Baker, McKenzie and Dorling. Baker and McKenzie also face separate proceedings brought by defendants in the Securency case.

The five face criminal convictions, fines and/or jail terms for maintaining their ethical responsibility to protect the confidentiality of sources.

"Right now, I am faced with every journalist's most-feared nightmare: comply with a court order to hand over documents that I promised would be kept confidential, or face a jail sentence for contempt of court," Ferguson said.

"It is a situation forced on me by Australia's richest person, Gina Rinehart, who is also the major shareholder in the company I work for, Fairfax Media."

A sixth journalist, Paddy Manning from Fairfax Media, recently faced a subpoena from mining magnate Nathan Tinkler seeking confidential documents.

While the subpoena has now been lifted, court imposed restrictions remain in place. Manning said: "I think it would be a great surprise to many working journalists and to the public at large that we cannot report confidential information in the public interest. Isn't that our job?"

Paul Murphy, director - media with the Media Alliance said: "The wealthy and powerful in Australia are increasingly using courts to prevent the public having access to information they have a right to know. No journalist should face criminal conviction for doing their job ethically and in the public interest. Such journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy."

Victorian journalists, Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, who were found in contempt of court in 2007 for not revealing their sources, have sent a message of support to their colleagues.

The Media Alliance supports the petition for Adele Ferguson, who has been subpoenaed by Gina Rinehart seeking information about Ferguson's confidential sources.

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