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It’s crucial for press freedom that whistleblowers are protected, not punished

Henri Scott

July 12, 2023

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David McBride (left), who went to the ABC to expose alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, and Richard Boyle (right) who blew the whistle about wrongdoing at the Tax Office. CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN/JOE ARMAO

OPINION

Original Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, Kieran PenderPeter Greste and Bill Browne

Public interest journalism is a key democratic pillar, serving as a critical safeguard of our human rights. But press freedom is all too often fragile. This is why, 30 years ago, the United Nations first declared World Press Freedom Day, which is marked today.

Australia likes to present itself as a bastion of media freedom, and an exemplar to other nations in our region. Yet the past decade has seen a sustained assault on press freedom in this country. Raids on the ABC and News Corp, the prosecution of journalists’ sources, the introduction of Draconian secrecy laws, heightened state surveillance powers and inaction on transparency and accountability reform – collectively, these measures saw us plummet down world press freedom rankings. Previously unimaginable intrusions on press freedom have become shockingly commonplace.

Since taking office almost a year ago, the Albanese government has taken positive steps to reverse the tide. The Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, KC, has dropped the prosecution of whistleblower Bernard Collaery, committed to overhauling whistleblowing and secrecy laws and, in February, convened a press freedom summit. These moves should be commended.

But there is one area of glaring inaction. Two whistleblowers remain on trial: Richard Boyle, who blew the whistle to the ABC and this masthead about wrongdoing at the Tax Office; and David McBride, who went to the ABC to expose alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

Protection for journalists’ sources is a vital component of press freedom. Together, the media and their sources bring transparency and accountability. Without whistleblowing, public interest journalism is often not possible; and wrongdoing remains hidden. Which is why it is absolutely crucial for press freedom in Australia that whistleblowers are protected, not punished.

Nine’s managing director of Publishing, James Chessell (left), Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor, Peter Greste from the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, and Schwartz Media’s Erik Jensen before the press freedom summit meeting in February. CREDIT: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

Most Australians agree. New polling released today by The Australia Institute – undertaken in collaboration with the Human Rights Law Centre – shows that Australians overwhelmingly support whistleblowers. Three-quarters of those polled said whistleblowers make Australia a better place, and even more said whistleblowers needed stronger legal protections (84 per cent), including the establishment of a whistleblower protection authority (79 per cent).

Almost two-thirds of those polled think the McBride case should be discontinued, and even more want the Boyle case to end. Australians understand that there is no public interest to be served in going after whistleblowers, and that these cases undermine press freedom, open government and public accountability.

The attorney-general has the legal authority to end these prosecutions, just as he discontinued the case against Collaery, the lawyer for ex-spy Witness K, who was accused along with his client of exposing Australia’s unconscionable conduct towards Timor-Leste. These cases are equally exceptional.

If the government fails to act, Boyle and McBride face the very real risk of jail time. Boyle lost his whistleblowing defence earlier this year, confirming the frailty of existing legal protections. He has appealed; if unsuccessful, he will face trial in October.

And extraordinarily, of all the people accused of wrongdoing over alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, it is McBride, the whistleblower, who will be the first to face court, rather than any of the alleged perpetrators. He is due to go on trial in November. He was forced to withdraw his whistleblowing defence last year following an astonishing national security intervention by the government.

Dreyfus has admitted that Australia’s whistleblowing laws are deeply flawed and in need of reform. But he has so far refused to intervene, leaving these men to their fates – despite each acting in a way they thought was consistent with federal whistleblowing law.

The Albanese government’s commitment to press freedom is welcome and no doubt genuine. There is much to be done – extensive law reform, new accountability bodies and a cultural shift within our institutions. This should all be backstopped by comprehensive human rights protections in Australia, which recognise the value of freedom of expression and press freedom.

But pledges of reform to whistleblowing, secrecy and surveillance laws will be critically undermined if these two whistleblowers are ultimately imprisoned. That would send a chilling message to every Australian – speak up about government wrongdoing, and you may destroy your career, suffer astonishing mental anguish, be forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and risk prison time.

On World Press Freedom Day, we call on the Albanese government to end the prosecution of whistleblowers to ensure press freedom and transparency in this country can thrive.

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Written By Henri Scott

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