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From Assange to Murdoch: Australia's free speech landscape

As Australians go to the polls, how does their country shape up on free expression, asks Index on Censorship.

Australia has no grand constitution outlining civil freedoms and national character. The constitution is instead a lengthy, largely legislative document and does not guarantee freedom of speech or press outright. That notwithstanding Australia's High Court believes that freedom of speech is implied within, however some press watchers believe it could be strengthened.

Despite a relatively free press Reporters Without Borders placed Australia at number 26 in its 2013 Press Freedom Index, up four spots from 2012 but still far behind closest neighbour New Zealand (number eight), as well as Finland, Jamaica and Costa Rica.

Outright press censorship and the highest profile cases of recent years have involved breaches of discrimination acts or incitements to hatred. Meanwhile press laws and reforms to them have been touted with scant success. Widespread internet censorship was defeated in 2012 after Communications Minister Stephen Conroy rescinded the internet filtering scheme after five years trying to pass it.

However though always fearful of harming the children, and causing offence, most Australians see outright censorship measures as neither useful, fair or in keeping with national ideals.

A historical example might be the 1951 referendum on whether to outlaw the Australian Communist Party after Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies tried to ban it. Despite fear of the communist threat it was defeated by voters thanks to worries on curbs of freedom of speech and association.

Anti-discrimination laws, hate speech and other things untoward

In 2011 political columnist Andrew Bolt, who works for Murdoch-owned News Corp (Australia's branch of News Limited), was found to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act in two 2009 articles after he implied lighter-skinned indigenous people identified as aboriginal for gain. Speaking outside court after the ruling he called it "a terrible day for free speech in this country". He had argued his articles were within the laws of free speech provisions. In 2009 "shock jock" broadcaster Alan Jones was in trouble for breaching anti-discrimination laws for comments made about Lebanese Muslim men years previous. The court found he had incited hatred.

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on Index's site.

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