Press freedom ‘worsening’: survey

The state of press freedom in Australia has deteriorated over the past decade, with the impact of national security laws on journalism the biggest concern, according to a survey of more than 1200 people conducted by MEAA.

Cover image by Mark Evans of BlueskyImage/

But few journalists say their employer is keeping them informed about changes to national security laws which may impact on their work, and more than half have no confidence that they could protect sources from being identified through their metadata.

Almost 90% of the 1292 people who completed the online survey believe that press freedom has worsened over the past decade, with just 1.5% saying it had got better.

When asked to rate the health of press freedom in Australia in 2018, 70% of respondents rated it as poor or very poor, and just 1.3% rated it as very good.

The survey was conducted online by MEAA between February and April this year.

It was open to all members of the public, with 410, or almost a third of the respondents, identifying as currently working as a current or former journalist (retired or unemployed), or journalism student.

MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy said the survey findings were worrying.

“There is a widespread concern about press freedom in Australia”, he said. “Journalists and whistleblowers bring important stories to light in the public interest. Increasingly they face criminal prosecution as a response.

“Journalism is under attack with national security laws, metadata retention, poor protections for whistleblowers, the over-use of suppression orders by courts and flawed freedom of information processes all combining to make it harder for journalists to do their job.

“It is difficult for journalists to keep pace with all these issues, and there is clearly a role for MEAA to continue to campaign for press freedom and for employers to educate and support their editorial staff in navigating these minefields.”

Overall, there are negative perceptions about the health of press freedom among both journalists and non-journalists, with a greater level of concern among non-journalists (72.5% compared to 60.4%). Working journalists had a slightly more positive view of changes to press freedom over the past decade, with 11.8% saying it was the same, compared to 6.2% of non-journalists.

Both journalists and non-journalists identified national security laws which impact on public interest reporting as the most important press freedom issue, with roughly one-in-five of both groups of respondents ranking it the top issue. Second for both groups was funding of public broadcasting, followed by government secrecy.

“Legislating for Australia’s national security has drifted a long way from the fight against terrorism,” Mr Murphy said.

“The latest laws before the Parliament have gone so far as to criminalise innocent receipt of information. Those laws have been rightly condemned not only by every media organisation in Australia, but also by international bodies such as the United Nations, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch.”

“The balance needs to be tipped back to the public’s right to know. Journalists and whistleblowers deserve protection, not prosecution, for acting in the public interest.”

A separate set of questions only for journalists sought to explore their personal experiences of press freedom issues in recent years.

Seventy-two per cent of journalists said Australia’s defamation laws made reporting more difficult, and while only 6.3% had received a defamation writ in the past two years, almost a quarter of journalists (24.4%) said they had had a news story spiked within the past 12 months because of fears of defamation action by a person mentioned in the story.

Almost two-in-five journalists — 36.7% — said information from a confidential source whose identity they had protected had led to the publication or broadcasting of a news story, but only 10% believed legislation was adequate to protect public sector and private sector whistleblowers.

Despite more than two years of laws which allow government agencies to access journalists’ computer, mobile phone and other metadata, less than half (43.7%) said they or their employer took steps to ensure they did not generate metadata that could identify a confidential source. Close to two-thirds (63.7%) said they were not confident that their sources could be protected from being identified from their metadata.

Similarly, only 26.6% of journalists said their employer kept them informed of changes to national security laws and how they may affect their journalism, although only 16.3% said their reporting had been hindered by national security laws.

Concerns about restrictions on court reporting are highest in Victoria, where 25.8% of respondents said they had been impacted by the issue of a suppression or non-publication order by a judge and magistrates, compared to 14.2% in other jurisdictions.

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