Australian newspapers ‘censor’ their front pages in protest against government secrecy laws

Front pages of Australian newspapers on 21 October 2019. Photo from Twitter post of Australia's National Press Club

In an unprecedented show of unity, Australian media outlets ran similar stories and redacted front pages featuring the ‘right to know’ campaign in response to government actions that undermine the work of journalists.

Australia’s Right to Know coalition said that rival media groups have joined forces to defend press freedom:

The media plays a vital role in telling the public what’s really going on. But journalists and whistleblowers in Australia live in fear of criminal charges, police raids and damaging court battles that threaten their professional careers and personal freedom.

The coalition also asserted that the campaign is not just intended to benefit the media but also the public’s right to know:

Even though our coalition is made up of competing businesses, we still team up to protect Australians’ right to know. We do this because media freedom is critical for holding powerful people accountable and ensuring you know about issues like aged care abuse, secret spying on Australian citizens and mysterious land deals with foreign owners.

According to the coalition’s research, Australian governments have passed around 75 laws related to secrecy, encryption, and spying which are often used to intimidate, prosecute, and arrest journalists.

In the past year, some media offices were raided for publishing classified information. Information requests on some public matters such as elderly abuse, the number of children in adult detention centers, and public surveillance were also denied.

Paul Murphy, chief executive of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, said some laws impede the work of journalists:

The culture of secrecy that has descended through these legal provisions restricts every Australian’s right to know and goes well beyond the original intent of national security.

Journalism is a fundamental pillar of our democracy. It exists to scrutinise the powerful, shine a light on wrongdoing and hold governments to account to the people, but the Australian public is being kept in the dark about matters that affect them.

Michael Miller, executive chairman of News Corp Australasia, criticized the use of national security laws to restrict public access to information:

It’s clear the national security justification doesn’t tell the whole story of a government’s secrecy obsession when it stops journalists telling you whether your parents or grandparents are at risk in a nursing home or whether the tax office might be raiding your bank accounts.

Australian Community Media (ACM) chief executive Allen Williams explained why they are supporting the campaign:

Australians expect and deserve to know what's going on, and how and why the government decisions that affect their lives are made.

The communities we serve trust us to keep them connected and informed, so ACM is proud to support this campaign to protect the public's right to know.

Some of the demands of the campaign include the call for public sector whistle-blowers protection, enactment of a “properly functioning” freedom of information regime, and the right to contest the application for warrants for journalists and media organizations.

These are some of the Twitter photos shared by journalists in their respective newsrooms:

Court reporters shared some of the challenges they face when access to information is restricted:

Photographers also participated in the campaign:

Even detained asylum-seeker and award-winning writer Behrooz Boochani tweeted his support to the campaign:

The media protest was briefly discussed in parliament with the prime minister accusing the previous government (which is now the opposition) of passing laws that gag the press. Meanwhile, the police said they will conduct a review of their policies on dealing with the media during official operations.

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