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Public's right to know under threat

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Suppression of court verdicts for lengthy periods; inordinate delays in Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, FoI chases abandoned because of spiralling costs, and journalists dragged through the courts for not revealing sources.


These are some of the failings Irene Moss confronted in her audit of the state of free speech in Australia, commissioned by a collection of media groups acting under the banner of Australia's Right to Know Coalition.


The former New South Wales ombudsman stopped short of calling it a crisis, but her report, released this week, paints a less than rosy picture. Take the case of Melbourne newspaper the Herald Sun, which had to abandon a two-year FoI campaign about federal politicians' travel, after being quoted a fee of A$1.25 million ($1.5 million) for the information.


Or the trial and subsequent contempt of court convictions for journalists Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, who refused to name a source behind a leaked story about a federal government proposal to slash war veterans' benefits.


The Herald Sun journalists were fined A$7000 for their troubles.


Then there is the federal government's refusal to give access to an opinion poll on the success of the federal government's A$32 million WorkChoices advertising campaign - at least until after the election.


Restricted, flawed, hindered by secrecy and mistrust are just a smattering of terms Moss used.


"The audit would broadly conclude that free speech and media freedom are being whittled away by gradual and sometimes almost imperceptible degrees," she said at the launch of her report in Sydney.


"Many of the mechanisms vital to a well-functioning democracy are beginning to wear thin."


The audit found 500 pieces of legislation and at least 1000 court suppression orders restricting media reporting in Australia, are still in force.


There are 365 Acts of Parliament at both federal and state levels, with specific secrecy provisions blocking public access to information.


They include the Commonwealth's Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act and, surprisingly, the NSW Gaming Machines Act, the Commonwealth Wool Legislation Act and Victorian Grain Marketing Act.


Laws protecting journalists were also inadequate, while the flow of information from the court system was "found wanting", stifled by a raft of suppression orders, she said.


One example cited in the report concerned Melbourne gangster Carl Williams, who is appealing a life sentence handed down early this year for the murder of crime patriarch Lewis Moran, his son Jason Moran and gangland identity Mark Mallia.


According to the report, when Williams was convicted for another murder in November 2005, that of drug world identity Michael Marshall, the verdict was suppressed for two years because he was facing other charges.


"Even though Williams faced later charges (including murder), the passing of time, together with the huge public interest in reporting his result, meant the suppression order should not have been made," the report said.


Moss, who is also a former chairwoman of NSW watchdog the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), bemoaned the "growing culture of secrecy, defensiveness and mutual distrust" shown by governments and the courts.


"The greatest loss in this battle is not to the media but to the Australian people and their right to know about important matters that affect them," she said.


Also speaking at the launch, media company Fairfax's chief executive David Kirk called on the federal government to match a Labor promise to improve free speech provisions if elected.


Two weeks ago, Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd pledged to review FoI, journalistic privilege, whistleblower protection and privacy laws.


Kirk said he could not think of a better moment for "some me-too policies from the coalition".


"I think it is incumbent on the prime minister and the attorney general to be fully responsive to the issues presented in the Moss report," he said.


"It is a great opportunity to lock in these reforms now, on a fully bipartisan basis, before the campaign is over."


Prime Minister John Howard has promised an announcement on FoI reforms during the election campaign, and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said he would look at the Moss report "very closely".


"I have the utmost respect for Irene Moss," Ruddock said.


"Her ideas, I might not agree with all of them, but they are worthy of looking at and they will see proper consideration."


However, Howard has already dampened expectations, saying any changes were unlikely to satisfy the media.


Cameron Murphy from the NSW Council for Civil Liberties said the issues raised by the Moss report echoed his organisation's experiences, particularly with FoI requests.


"We've put in hundreds of freedom of information requests to try to identify what the Australian Federal Police have done in relation to Australians who are facing the death penalty overseas ... and we simply can't get information out of them," Murphy said.


"They cite operational reasons and other reasons which are nothing more than dubious excuses to hide embarrassing information."


Murphy said action was needed to reform the system, rather than further reviews.


"What we need is action, and what we need is a plan from the coalition that details what they're going to do to fix it," he said.


He said Labor's plan "was not good enough" because it amounted to little more than an inquiry.


Public's right to know under threat - 10 Nov 2007 - NZ Herald: World / International News

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