In a closing of ranks not seen before, except in the US, Australian newspapers published redacted front pages on Monday, protesting curbs on the press in the name of national security. The Right to Know campaign has drawn competing publications together to protest the impact of national security laws on press freedoms, and on the whistleblowers who bring in the bad news. Concern among journalists mounted following two police raids in June.
The headquarters of ABC were raided over stories alleging war crimes committed in Afghanistan by Australian special forces, while a former military lawyer was committed to trial. The home of a News Corp political journalist was also searched, and a raid on News Corp offices contemplated.
As governments become more opaque and intrusive at the same time, intensifying information asymmetry in politics, whistleblowers and digital activists like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Christopher Wylie have become crucial sources of insight about the intent of governments, and of liberties taken in the lee of security laws. Some of them may have personal motives, but that is a secondary consideration in comparison to the value of their efforts to the public interest.
The Australian government has reacted positively, with the home minister instructing police to consider the importance of a free press and the public interest before proceeding against the media. But there appears to be reluctance in government to treat the journalists’ broader demands favourably.
They seek the right to contest search warrants, new rules for determining what the government can stamp as secret, reform in the law of defamation and freedom of information, the protection of journalists from national security laws and, most importantly, whistleblower protection. It is unlikely that the fog of secrecy, which governments have revelled in since the colonial era, will be readily dispelled.