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World Press Freedom Day Motion

17 May 2023

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (18:09): I, too, rise in favour of the motion proposed by the Hon. Frank Pangallo; however, I take this opportunity to indicate that the Greens are not supportive of the government's amendments. We are concerned that they water down the motion of the Hon. Frank Pangallo and therefore we are not supportive of them; however, the Greens are supportive of the original motion that has been proposed by the honourable member.

I acknowledge the leadership of the Hon. Mr Frank Pangallo in this place on issues to do with press freedom. As has been observed by other members, he has been a journalist. He is a member in this place who has a keen interest in these issues and I certainly welcome his leadership in this regard.

May 3was the 30th anniversary of the United Nations UN General Assembly World Press Freedom Day. The theme for this year's day was 'Shaping a future of rights: freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights', signifying the enabling element of freedom of expression to enjoy and protect all other human rights. World Press Freedom Day reminds us that freedom to seek, disseminate and receive information on issues of public interest is a public good and vital to building a healthy and pluralistic civic space in which democratic institutions can flourish. Without a free and fair media acting as public watchdogs, citizens cannot access the information we need to make sound political choices, and accountability is severely impaired.

The media also offers citizens analysis of ongoing events, serves as a public forum in which different voices can be heard and interacts with and helps citizens understand what is becoming an increasingly complex world. The meaningful role played by the media in healthy democratic societies is recognised by the main universal and regional treaties on human rights, which entrench media freedom and pluralism in their provisions on freedom of expression and information.

World Press Freedom Day is also a day to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in pursuit of a story, to defend media from attacks on their independence and to assess the state of play of media freedoms worldwide, and to reflect about issues relating to press freedom and professional ethics.

Sadly, according to UNESCO World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: Global Report 2021-22, 85 per cent of the world's population experienced a decline in press freedom in their country over the past five years. The report also found that between 2016 and 2021, 455 journalists were killed, either for their work or while they were on the job. Nine times out of 10 the murder of a journalist is unresolved. At the same time, imprisonment of journalists has reached record highs. Since 2016, dozens of countries have adopted or amended laws and regulations that threaten freedom of expression and press freedom online.

Growing numbers of media outlets have been forced to cut down on staff or close their doors permanently, and just two companies—Google and Meta—now receive approximately half of all global digital advertising spends. Here in Australia, I fear that press freedom is going backwards. According to the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, Australia has dropped 14 places between 2021 and 2022, down from 25 to 35, and its score dropped from 80 to 73.77 over the last 12 months. Just two firms—News Corp and the Nine Entertainment Group—dominate Australia's media landscape, making Australia one of the most hyperconcentrated media systems in the world.

This oligarchic model prioritises business interests to the detriment of public interest journalism. The executives of big media companies maintain close ties to political leaders, which fuels doubts about the editorial independence of the outlets they own. In 2021, a Senate committee confirmed the existence of a growing culture of secrecy by the administration through the press, and this manifested itself through informal pressure not to reveal certain matters and of intimidation of whistleblowers under the pretext of protecting national security.

I should observe that it is not just state and federal governments that have a track record when it comes to intimidating the press. I remember my days in Town Hall, when the Team Adelaide faction, under the leadership of Lord Mayor Verschoor, initiated a gag order, which prevented members of council from being able to talk to the press about motions they were intending to move. I found that to be an outrageous affront to democracy at a local level, and myself and councillors Anne Moran and Phillip Martin were very much against that change. It took a very strong campaign from the media and the community to force the Team Adelaide faction, under the leadership of Alex Hyde, to reverse their position. It is a reminder that no level of government is immune from intimidating the press.

It is really important that we see strong, protected, independent public broadcasters like the ABC. These play a very important role in providing high-quality investigative journalism yet, sadly, they have had their budgets cut by more than half a billion dollars since 2014 and that has led to hundreds of lay-offs. The Liberal Party in Canberra have an appalling track record in that regard of trying to undermine the independence of the ABC. They have really gutted it over many years, and I hope that we see the Albanese government in Canberra putting more money into the ABC in the years ahead.

One of the challenges we face in our country is that Australia's constitution does not contain an explicit clause dealing with freedom of the press. This causes growing problems in our country, especially because some states are showing draconian tendencies concerning the free practice of journalism. At the federal level parliament has adopted, since the end of the 2000s, several problematic laws on national security, espionage and data encryption, which contain provisions authorising officials to violate the principle of journalists' confidential source protection. It is a really important principle for freedom of the press and it is one that is being eroded.

In a 2021 study, nearly 90 per cent of journalists in Australia said they feared, and I quote from that document, 'an increase in threats, harassment or intimidation', starting with threats from government. In 2019, the federal police searched the home of political News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst, in Canberra, as well as the headquarters of the ABC, creating an alarming legal precedent that threatens the survival of public interest journalism in our country.

We are seeing all around the world an erosion of press freedoms. We are seeing, as social media takes more of a centre stage, the proliferation of misinformation and the terrible impact that can have on our democracy. It is so vital that we see the freedom of the press being respected and preserved going forward. In that spirit, the Greens support the motion.