Attacks on speech and secret trials are undermining our rights

Photo by lukas Coch/AAP Supporters of Bernard Collaery and Witness K outside Supreme Court in Canberra in August last year

Contributed by a member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA)

The persecution of journalism is Australia continues to gather pace. Secret trials are becoming the order of the day. These are a serious threat to democracy.

Despite our rights being somewhat limited, what we do have, has been won by those who came before us. Now it seems, even this is too much for those in control to accept.

The best known case today, is that of Witness K and Bernard Colleary, concrening the evidence of misconduct by ASIO operatives and the Australian government over Timor-Leste.

Photo by Kym smith: Bernard Collaery

This is not the only case. Moves are underway, which may lead to the prosecution journalist Dan Oakes, over publishing exposures on the ABC over the killings in Afghanistan, which came out in the Afghan Files in 2017. The series was co-written by Sam Clark.

These charges, if they materialise, will also he heard under the cloak of secrecy. And they relate to last year’s notorious Federal Police raids on the ABC and News Corp.

Ever since the passing of the so-called anti-terrorist laws in the wake of the New York 9/11 bombings, the noose around right to report news government considers inconvenient, has has been gradually tightened.

Civil libertarians alerted to this threat back then. Those who were ushering in these changes run down those who spoke out and accused them of being alarmists. The threat is now materialising, and don’t expect that it will stop here.  

The total arsenal to restrict journalism and threaten journalists, publishers and others, including the threat of imprisonment, has already had an impact.

Much of what we read and see on a screen is restricted to a narrow view of the world. It would be even worse, were it for those within the profession prepared to take the risk and try to break through this wall.

Others use social media to get news out there. There are people of conscience prepared to whistleblow. Some of it is getting through. We all owe then a debt. Without this, Australia would have become a much bleaker place.

But it is precisely to silence these voices that coercive laws, and now secret trials, have been brought in.

The squeezing of the ABC is not unrelated. The ABC might not be perfect. But it has provided something of an alternative voice.

Government is becoming increasingly secretive, and access to its documents narrowing down, despite freedom of information legislation being on the books.

We see this in the administrative Appeals Tribunal’s (AAT) recent rubber stamp denial of access to government documents  relating to maritime border talks between Australia and Indonesia during the time of the invasion of Timor Leste during the 1970’s, and ongoing support for the violent occupation .until 1999. Documents relating to the murder of the Balibo 5 journalists have been suppressed.

The five murdered journalists Brian Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Brian Peters.

Publishing material about the deals with Indonesia and the suppression of information about the killings of the Australian journalists will likely lead to another secret trial.

The denial of information does not only relate to the big stories. This has become the routine practice of government and its agencies.

It is only a small step to extend these attacks on journalism to the entire public, where everyone would be pursued for talking about a taboo subject or expressing an unauthorised view.

We have seen Australians imprisoned through anti-terrorism laws, on evidence that has not been allowed to be properly contested or reported. This has established conditions for individuals to be set up for crimes they did not commit.

It is claimed that all of this is necessary for the nation’s national security. Isn’t this the claim of all tyrants? The second mark of a tyrant is the manufacture of external and internal threats. Suppression of information means that there doesn’t have to be evidence, and gutter politics is given free reign. Haven’t we been seeing some of this lately?

Covering up illegal and immoral acts against another government, the killing of civilians, and victimisation of Australians, are not about Australia’s national security. They are about covering war crimes and other wrongdoing.

Some obviously have a lot to hide, and the extent of the reaction marks just how frightened they are of the truth. This is all the more reason why the rest of us must pursue it.

The news and flow of information that comes to us is already tightly controlled. Every effort to break through and every instance of genuinely alternative media, strikes for freedom of speech. We need it more than ever now.

Truth is a powerful weapon, which can help expose the weakness of wrongdoers and work for justice. Truth is the defender of our rights.

If Australia just lets it go, the situation will get much worse. Those who stand up against today’s attacks on our rights know this. They will not go down without a fight, and they might even win.

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