Press freedom 'worse since Sept 11'

Press freedom in Australia has deteriorated since September 11, and is threatening the nation's democratic values, a new report says.

The inaugural Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) report focuses on key issues affecting journalists, including cuts to ABC funding, anti-terror legislation and amendments to ASIO and freedom of information laws.

The report, Turning up the Heat: The Decline of Press Freedom in Australia 2001-2005, said the new legislation and its strict enforcement has had a serious impact on the freedom of all Australians, including journalists.

The report's co-author, MEAA federal secretary Christopher Warren, said the balance had tipped too heavily in favour of security investigators and law enforcement agencies.

" ... We should not accept that press freedom and human rights should be sacrificed to fear," Mr Warren wrote in the report, released at a ceremony in Sydney.

"Any restrictions on human rights need to be weighed against the damage to the public interest and democratic values of Australia."

The new ASIO legislation was concerning because it insulated the security body from public scrutiny, the report said.

Under the December 2003 legislation, media are effectively banned from reporting on an active ASIO operation for up to two years.

The report argued the laws were "fundamentally undemocratic" because journalists faced a five-year jail term for doing their job of informing the public and stimulating debate.

In addition, Freedom of Information laws were providing a number of barriers for journalists seeking information to non-personal information.

Since 2001, the federal government has used a variety of exemptions in the legislation, rendering it a useless tool for journalists, the report said.

The report accused the federal government of intimidating whistleblowers from coming forward, citing an AFP raid on the offices of the National Indigenous Times on November 11, 2004.

The raid was approved to seize two leaked cabinet-in-confidence documents about an Aboriginal welfare plan the paper was planning to make public.

In addition, the federal government was accused of having a "hostile" approach to the ABC through de-funding, specialised board appointments and a campaign to smear the ABC and SBS as "left wing".

The report gave the example of former Communications Minister Richard Alston, who submitted 43 complaints to the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) about left-wing bias in ABC's AM coverage of the Iraq war.

The ABA upheld six of those complaints and found the ABC had breached its own impartiality guidelines four times.

The report said ethnic tensions mobilised by the September 11, 2001 attacks and its aftermath have also put reporters in danger overseas and at home.

© 2005 AAP

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