Since Professor Peter Greste addressed TEDxUQ about the state of press freedom in Australia the world has truly been tipped upside down and shaken with force, yet his concerns remain prescient today.
If you missed Greste’s talk, or would like to hear it again, you can find it here.
During his TEDxUQ talk, Greste touched on topics relating to the freedoms, or lack thereof, available to journalists both in Australia and around the world.
One significant infringement of press freedom discussed was his own arrest in Egypt in 2013, of which you have no doubt heard. Again, if you haven’t – see his talk.
But, he explains, what many Australians fail to recognise when they dismiss these suppressions of free speech as overseas draconian governance is this: our own country’s constitution offers no protection for media freedom.
A year on and we’ve seen record numbers of Australians turn to traditional news media during times of despair caused by bushfires and the pandemic.
We are, as a nation, actively seeking information from reliable, credible and professional sources.
“I think that the COVID crisis has shown us, shown the public actually why the free press is a good thing,” Peter recently explained.
“It has held government to account, it’s criticised government to correct bad policies and fix mistakes when they’ve gone wrong, it’s exposed flaws in it but it has also supplied really good, solid information that people know they can rely on and act on.”
Yet, despite the public desire for accurate journalism and a rejection of ‘fake news’, reporting the news is more difficult that it has ever been before.
“The problem of course is that at the same time we are seeing record numbers turn to those professional news sources, we’ve also seen revenues collapse, advertising has gone down the toilet because businesses simply don’t have the money to advertise and aren’t putting it into newspapers any longer.”
News Corp’s regional print closures and the ABC’s budget cuts resulting in six hundred job losses are grim examples of the flailing Australian press.
“I think journalism is a critical service, it’s not just a business,” Greste explained.
“It’s not a business in the same way that aircrafts are a business, it’s not a business in the same way that a gym is a business, journalism is a business that actually serves not just the shareholders and owners of the companies, it is a business that serves the public and I think that we’ve got to recognise that it’s a part of the way our democracy functions.”
Under a mountain of COVID-19 coverage the back and forth fight for legislation protecting Australian journalists is ongoing.
In his talk, Greste also spoke of the controversial AFP raids of News Corp journalist Annika Smethhurst’s home and the ABC Ultimo office.
Since this, the AFP have dropped their investigations into Smethhurst and her story on extending the Australian Signals Directorate’s spying powers, Greste holds mixed feelings about this.
“Obviously I was pleased that the case had been dropped but it was dropped not out principle but because of legal technicalities.”
The case was dropped due to a lack of evidence.
“They didn’t say ‘we know that this is undermining press freedom, that we overstepped the mark, so we are going to change our policy.’”
These mixed feelings are underscored by the fact that ABC journalist Dan Oakes still faces potential prosecution for his role in reporting on the ‘Afghan Files’ – exposing alleged war crimes in Afghanistan by Australian soldiers.
Greste, as a spokesperson for the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, said in a statement “The news that an Australian journalist who reported in the public interest is now at risk of being prosecuted by the Commonwealth DPP is a plain example that we need to strike this balance urgently, or risk further damaging our democracy.”
Two parliamentary enquiries into press freedom in Australia that began in 2019 are due to conclude shortly, with dates still unspecified.
“There have been some political shifts since the TEDxUQ talk, I think we have seen the Attorney General say that any prosecutions against journalists need to be cleared by him and I think that that’s encouraging,” Greste said.
“It’s an acknowledgement of the problem but it doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is with the law not with the discretion of the minister. So, in a way, we are seeing a lot of things that clarify the need for legislative reform.”