Readers of NoFibs reap the rewards of citizen journalists expressing their news and views with a high level of free expression by world standards.
So why should Australians care about media freedom on World Press Freedom Day 2014?
Quite simply, because it is a ‘fragile freedom’ – continually under threat and only noticed by most people once they have lost it.
Just ask any of the refugees who have fled to Australia over the past century from regimes that have robbed them of their human rights. One of their first responses is typically that they love their new home country because it is ‘free’ and they can express themselves freely here.
When you look at international indices of media freedom like that of Reporters Without Borders, Australia (ranked 28th) sits in stark contrast to the censorship and intimidation of journalists in many other countries like Vietnam (174th), China (175th) and Somalia (176th).
Journalists are not usually jailed in this country (although Melbourne broadcaster and blogger Derryn Hinch was a recent exception), and they are certainly not tortured or murdered for exercising their right to free expression here.
At least in Hinch’s case he was duly tried and convicted (for breach of a suppression order) in a legal system that is open, just and in accordance with the rule of law.
The same cannot be said of another jailed Australian journalist, Peter Greste, who remains in jail in Egypt after 130 days along with five of his Al Jazeera media colleagues (and 14 others) on trumped up charges of defaming the country and of consorting with the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Greste’s plight has been highlighted here because of his nationality, he is just one of 168 journalists jailed throughout the world this year for just doing their job. The expression ‘shoot the messenger’ takes on a chilling reality when you also consider the 25 journalists, bloggers and citizen journalists killed already in 2014.
Australia’s relatively good performance in these press freedom rankings belies the fact that there are ongoing and emerging threats to free expression.
The top ten places in the RSF rankings are typically occupied by Scandinavian and Western European nations like Finland, the Netherlands and Norway because free expression is valued highly there and enshrined in bills of rights and human rights conventions.
Australia is rare among Western democracies in that it lacks any such constitutional protection of free speech or free media. That means that, unlike in places like New Zealand, Canada and the UK, free expression is not considered routinely when laws are proposed that impinge upon it.
It is one of the reasons there are hundreds of laws at state and Commonwealth level limiting what journalists, bloggers and other citizens can say and write. They include:
- defamation, contempt, intellectual property, privacy and confidentiality laws
- racial discrimination laws now under review at Commonwealth level
- cyberlaws controlling the ‘misuse of carriage services’
- surveillance and suppression powers of federal agencies like ASIO and the Federal Police
- laws restricting access to prisons, mental health facilities and detention centres and thus limiting scrutiny of their operations
- a range of laws across consumer and securities fields policing what can be said in a commercial or advertising context
- licensing controls and reviews in the broadcast sector
- classification laws over the sale and circulation of magazines and games
- a host of powers held by local governments and state and federal agencies to punish the scrutiny of their operations
- powers of courts and tribunals to suppress matters before them and to close their hearings to the media and the public
- a range of exemptions to freedom of information disclosure available to governments at all levels.
Of course, many of these laws exist for good reason. There is no such thing as absolute free expression anywhere in the world. Some controls are needed because other rights are at stake.
But sadly in Australia free expression does not get an automatic guernsey when these laws are being proposed and debated. It only gets considered when a citizen, political representative, academic or lobby group raises it – and that is a relatively ad hoc situation.
Australia is indeed the Lucky Country in so many ways. We are lucky our journalists and bloggers are not routinely jailed and murdered, and we are lucky to be in a nation where a blog like No Fibs can offer a marketplace of perspectives.
But we are unlucky not to have free expression enshrined in our Constitution or in a Bill of Rights.
World Press Freedom Day is a time to reflect upon that anomaly.