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Compromising our freedom of speech

By Syed Atiq ul Hassan - posted Thursday, 5 January 2006

Post 9-11 (2001) waves of terror involved aggression and revenge, or so-called jihad, by those fanatics targeted by US-allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq military operations. Australia’s practical involvement in these operations along with the US and the UK, has put it in the spotlight of Islamic extremists.

If there are groups or individuals, in Australia, supposedly connected to those foreign elements, and considered as a danger regarding subversive activities, then what is required most is for the media to work more closely with those elements to provide them with an opportunity to speak  publicly.

One should not forget that freedom of speech is the foundation of all humanity, and without it, politics become impossible. Unless we are able to hear and understand the views of our political adversaries, we cannot hope to turn their minds and convince them they are wrong, or to even to change our own behaviour to accommodate opposing views that may turn out to be right.


Media has its own strength in creating public opinion and to change public perception on critical issues. Media plays an important role in understanding complex issues on national and international politics. Today, the role of journalists, writers and publishers has become globally important and challenging. This is the time when writers, intellectuals and media analysts should publically expose critical issues to eradicate curiosity and uncertainty. But this can only be possible if we have absolute freedom of speech.

Conversely, if extremism and misconceived thoughts are criminalised by sedition laws, and freedom of speech is suppressed by state power, then there will be a danger that these activities and their operators will go underground, which would suit them, allowing them be seen as victims of the state. This phenomenon is illustrated by the example of Osama bin Laden and his network.

Since the abolition of White Australia policy in the early 1970s, Australia has gained a remarkable status globally as being a free and democratic society, open for everyone. In this process the media has played a vital role. Australia will continue to enjoy this reputation as long as its democratic values are kept intact.

It is hard to digest that in Australia, a country which is based on tolerance and mutual respect and whose identity is its multiculturalism, anyone would appreciate or support terrorism or support laws which would harm the social freedom and democracy of Australians. The mentally ill and people of ill-conceived ideas in the name of faith and belief are found in every society. Certainly there are already adequate laws in Australia to deal with any act of violence or terrorism. Therefore, one cannot imagine the people of Australia would like to see the imposition of sedition laws which could change the face of Australia internationally.

In Britain on July 22 2005, a Brazilian national Charles de Menezes was watched as he left his home and was followed by security forces to a train station. As he entered the station he was apprehended by police, one of whom pinned down his arms while another fired seven bullets into his head. The action was described by politicians and police in London as a “tragic mistake”. Australians cannot afford to have these kinds of incidents.

Certainly, it is the responsibility of the state to protect its institutions and public assets from violent behaviour and acts of terrorism. However, the state should not suppress the basic human rights and democratic values of the people by criminalising free speech. Journalists’ right to freedom of expression and the public’s right to know the truth are the basic pillars of freedom of speech and democracy. Confidentiality of the source of information is the prime factor in journalistic tasks and duties.


The anti-terror laws will directly harm press freedom in Australia. For example, let's take the power of “notice to produce” for the Australian Federal Police that will be used to demand any information, including the identity of confidential sources and material. This will definitely discourage sources from speaking with the media. Consequently, it would directly affect journalists’ investigations and fact-finding processes. Eventually, the public will be significantly less informed and the watchdog role of journalism will be diminished.

According to the control orders in this proposed legislation, a person who has not actually committed a criminal act could be detained for up to 12 months and may face any of the following impositions:

  • be restricted or prohibited from going to a particular place;
  • be required to remain in a particular place at a particular time and or on a particular day;
  • be prohibited from leaving Australia;
  • be prohibited from contacting or communicating with a particular person/s;
  • be prohibited from working in particular jobs or carrying out specific activities, and or possessing or using otherwise lawful items or substances;
  • be required to wear a tracking device; and or
  • be prohibited from using of telephones, the Internet and other communication technologies.
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This article is the print version of a speech as a guest speaker at New South Wales Writers’ Forum on Impact of anti-terror laws on journalists and writers held on at NSW Writers’ Centre, Sydney.

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About the Author

Syed Atiq ul Hassan, is senior journalist, writer, media analyst and foreign correspondent for foreign media agencies in Australia. His email is

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