Nothing protects democracy more than free speech. Every autocratic government has suppressed it and no democracy has survived without it. Without it, a political cartoonist is either in jail or an ex-cartoonist. Here in Australian we have always enjoyed a free press. In the 1820s NSW Governor Sir Ralph Darling tried to control the press by introducing a system of licences for newspapers that could be withdrawn at the governor’s pleasure. Presumably after his displeasure. These measures were in contradiction of the laws of England and the Chief Justice of the colony Sir Francis Forbes refused to assent them. So Australia got to keep its free press.
While many cartoonists have upset many politicians since then, no politician in Australia has passed laws to control the press, except in times of war. But the times are a-changing. The Federal Government has pushed through new anti-terror laws that contain sections on sedition that seem to have no other purpose than to control the press. They fit well with this government’s behaviour.
There have been constant attacks on the ABC by sections of the Federal Government claiming the organisation is biased. While there have been inquiries, few examples of bias have been found. This hasn’t stopped sections of the Liberal Party from continuing the attack and trying to turn the ABC into a propaganda machine. The point overlooked in these attacks and inquiries is not how biased the ABC is but how far to the right and away from mainstream Australia those making the allegations are. It shouldn’t be overlooked that the same people who are making the allegations against the ABC will be administering the new sedition laws, which also fit with the government’s obsession with control.
Think this is exaggerated? Well ask yourself what is the purpose of the relentless attacks on the ABC if they are not about control? While the ABC couldn’t be said to have the right-wing bias of some sections of the Australian media, it’s still a long way from being left wing. Phillip Adams - a successful capitalist - is said to be the voice of the left on the ABC and the most that could be said of his politics is that they’re small “l” liberal. That’s way short of being left wing.
It shouldn’t be forgotten controlling free speech (the press) is the common refuge of all dictators.
Still think all this is alarmist exaggeration? Think about John Howard - who likes to portray himself as a representative of middle Australia while claiming to be the nation’s most right-wing prime minister - as he pushes through new extreme industrial relations laws, then say this government isn’t controlled by the far right.
If it’s not to control the press then why has the Federal Government rushed through the new sedition laws? These laws can be used to radically alter the nature of public debate. They draw on community fears and are intended to create a state where government and police will be able to act without accountability. Howard says the new sedition laws aren’t there to control the press, but as that’s all they seem to do, why else are they there? Given we’ve only got Howard’s word on their use, cartoonists and reporters had better start developing a taste for gruel.
The new laws are said to help protect us from terrorists, but no act of terrorism will do more damage to our way of life than the destruction of freedom of the press. Prime Minister Robert Menzies said in 1939, “The greatest tragedy that could overcome a country would be for it to fight a successful war in defence of liberty, and lose its own liberty in the process”. There are some members of the government who see those dangers in the new laws and there is talk of a review after they’ve been passed. But why pass a bad law that is intended to be review? It’s nonsense.
Under the new Bill, the Australian Federal Police can make a request for a person to be put on preventative detention or control order. The legislation also places restrictions on reporting details about a person in detention. A journalist who reveals that a person has been detained, the length of the detention or any other information relating to the order faces five years' imprisonment. It’s an exaggerated penalty aimed at silencing journalists: intimidating them into submission and allowing miscarriages of justice go unquestioned and inevitably unnoticed. So who benefits from the new laws: the public who will be deprived of knowing what is going on, or the terrorists who don’t want the public to know what is going on?
The media’s ability to do their job is further crippled by the police’s increased power to obtain documents, which may relate to a terrorism offence. Notice to produce provisions will allow the AFP to force journalists to hand over information, including the identity of confidential sources, if those documents will help in the investigation of a “serious terrorism offence”. The fine for refusing to comply is $3,300. To add injury to insult, a journalist who discloses that they’ve received a notice or the contents of it will incur an additional fine of $13,200. And Howard says the new laws aren’t intended to control the press.
Why would a government for the people and by the people take away the capacity of the people to know what was being done in the name of the people? Why would a government - claiming to champion freedom - attempt to impose anti-terror legislation on the media that would interfere with its capacity to report or (publish a) cartoon on what is going on? How could any government send Australian troops overseas to fight wars to bring freedom to other countries turn around and restrict freedom within Australia? Would the current Australian Government tolerate such suppression of truth in Iran or Afghanistan? Is it OK to impose freedom on people who don’t have it while taking it away from people who do?
Terrorists act outside the law and are unlikely to worry about laws made by a government - they want to destroy - designed to attack people who are only interested in reporting what is happening. Terrorists won’t go away just because the media is stopped from reporting their stupidities. So why is the government acting in the manner of a mad religious order that can’t tolerate knowledge, freedom, dissent and democratic principals? The proposed new anti-terror laws contain serious threats to our democracy. If they are not withdrawn the only winners will be the terrorists.
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