Christian Porter's press freedom 'safeguard' raises fears over reporters' independence

| 01.10,19. 05:41 AM |

Christian Porter's press freedom 'safeguard' raises fears over reporters' independence

Photo: There have been calls to protect Australia's press freedom since the June raids. (AAP: Joel Carrett)

Journalists will be under even more pressure to keep the Federal Government onside or risk prosecution under a new Attorney-General directive, Australia's peak legal body has warned.

Under pressure to do more to protect press freedom, Christian Porter issued a directive that prosecutors will need his approval before charging journalists under certain sections of Australia's secrecy laws.

The decision could shield ABC and News Corp employees from facing possible criminal charges over their reporting on national security issues following June's raids by the Australian Federal Police.

But Law Council of Australia President Arthur Moses SC said it would not help solve the "legitimate concerns raised by the media" since the raids.

"Let me be very blunt about this, it does not allay the concerns that have being raised in relation to press freedoms in Australia," Mr Moses said.

"It puts the Attorney-General, who after all is a politician, in the position of authorising prosecutions of journalists in situations where they may have written stories critical of his Government.

"It creates an apprehension on the part of journalists that they will need to curry favour with the Government or, in particular, the Attorney-General in order to avoid prosecution.

"The media should never be put in that situation."

Mr Moses said there would be ambiguity around any decision Mr Porter made.

"It is a decision that no Attorney-General should ever be required to make, because it may undermine the appearance of the Attorney-General's independence," Mr Moses said.

"[It may] call into question an Attorney-General's own motive because he or she may be seeking to, it would say by way of an appearance, protect or otherwise the reputation of the Government."

Mr Porter has not responded to the ABC's request for an interview.

In the directive, signed on September 19, Mr Porter explained his consent would act as an "additional safeguard".

"This will allow the most detailed and cautious consideration of how an allegation of a serious offence should be balanced with our commitment to freedom of the press," he said.

AFP officers raided News Corp's Annika Smethurst's home in June, after she reported federal departments were considering giving spy agencies greater surveillance powers.

Officers raided the ABC's Sydney headquarters the following day over a series of 2017 stories known as the Afghan Files.

Since the raids, there have been widespread calls by the media, unions and politicians to do more to protect Australia's press freedom.

The directive did not rule out the prospect of the journalists facing charges, nor did it make any mention of any particular cases.

Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance president Marcus Strom agreed Mr Porter's measure could act as a safeguard, but did not agree it was the right approach.

"We'd like to think it's a welcome development for Dan Oakes, Sam Clark and Annika Smethurst who have been facing prosecution recently," Mr Strom said.

"[But] we don't want politicians to be deciding the fate of journalists.

"It doesn't seem to be a solution to the problem — which is that journalism is effectively criminalised in this country."

Mr Strom has argued for the decision to be made as part of a judicial process instead.

The Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said while Labor welcomed the measure, Mr Porter still needed to rule out any charges being laid against the three journalists.

"This direction is not legislation … it won't prevent police raids, it won't prevent other actions of intimidation by the Government," he said.

"What we urgently need are more robust protections for press freedom."


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