In the 2019 Kenneth Myer lecture, Professor Peter Greste drew on his own experience of imprisonment in Egypt to examine the global political forces that have undermined press freedom both abroad and here in Australia. He considered how we got the laws that created the problem, the media’s own role in getting us there and how we might be able to fix it.
Professor Peter Greste is UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland. He came to academia after a 30-year career as a foreign correspondent for the BBC, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera. He is best known for being charged with terrorism offences in Cairo while he worked for Al Jazeera. Their case became a fight for press freedom and since his release in 2015, he has become an advocate for journalists worldwide. His campaigning earned him numerous human rights awards and in 2017, with two colleagues, he established the advocacy group, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom.
This event was generously supported by The Myer Foundation.
2019 Kenneth Myer Lecture - Press Freedom in Australia and Why it is in Crisis 15 August
*Speakers: Brett Mason (B), Auntie Violet (V), Tanyana (T), Peter Greste (P), Marie-Louise Ayres (M)
*Location: National Library of Australia
B: Good evening and very warm welcome, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library and to the 30th Kenneth Myer Lecture generously supported by the Myer Foundation. I’m Brett Mason and it’s my honour to chair the Council of the National Library. But before we begin tonight might I invite Auntie Violet Sheridan to welcome us to country. Auntie Violet.
V: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, it’s a pleasure to be here and I feel privileged to meet you people ‘cause I watch your story on SBS and it is a pleasure to be here to welcome you to my country, Ngunnawal country.
Before we start my – this is my granddaughter, Tayana, and she’s learning Ngunnawal language so she’s going to say something in language before I go into the welcome.
T: [Speaks in Ngunnawal]. Hello and good evening, the fire inside us lights the darkness of our hearts so walk through your long slow pathway and find your dreaming on Ngunnawal land.
V: Thank you, Tayana. Yes, I’ve 18 grannies, two great-grandchildren and if you're familiar with the kinship care, of the Aboriginal kinship care, I always take - at the moment taking care of my two little cousins, Kevin and Grace. Kevin is six and Grace is eight but they’ve come to me, they’ve been with me for five years. Their grandmother and my father are brother and sister so for the love of my auntie I take care so I can keep family connection, keep us together. So doing my head in but someone’s got to do it.
So every time a formal welcome to country is given it continues a tradition that has been a part of Aboriginal culture except for a recent lapse of about 200 years. It was always given by way of welcome when permission was granted to visit a different tribal area. When we talk about traditional country we mean something beyond the dictionary definition of the word. For Aboriginal Australians we might mean homeland or tribal or clan area and we might mean more than just a place on the map.
For us country is a word that we all values. Places, resources, stories and culture obligations associated with that area, its features, it describes the entity of our ancestral domains. It is on this land that my ancestors cared, lived, learnt and raised their families. I acknowledge and pay my respects to my elders past, present and emerging and I’d also like to acknowledge Peter, it’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve been watching your stories and I tell you I was getting frustrated when they keep locking you up.
I’d also like to acknowledge the Chairman, Brett Mason. Sometimes I forget. I tell you I’m bad with names but I remember faces. And Director General, Marie-Louise and also would like to thank the Myer Foundation for putting this on tonight. I didn’t know this was happening over here and I just live in Gungahlin. I would have been here plenty of times and I’ve tried to tell Tayana, my granddaughter, a little bit about Pete’s story but I’m really happy that I’ve came and you invited me along to do the welcome. Now I can hear it from the man himself. Thank you so much for having me here and don’t – remember for those who live here, please take care of the land for our next generations because I have – really at the moment, really scared that our animals are going to be wiped out and my great-great-grandchildren will only see them in the zoo. So thank you ever so much, it’s a pleasure to be here.
B: Auntie Violet, Tayana, thank you very much for your warm welcome this evening, thank you.
I’m delighted to be here tonight, ladies and gentlemen, to welcome you to this momentous, this 30th anniversary of one of the Library’s flagship lectures, the Kenneth Myer Lecture. The Kenneth Myer Lecture began, it began in 1990 as a major annual event for the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The lecture was named for Kenneth Baillieu Myer, AC, Chairman of the National Library Council from 1974 to 1982 and a long-time friend of the Library.
Kenneth Myer was a visionary, a visionary Australian philanthropist and businessman. He contributed to an extensive range of institutions and causes through significant personal donations and very enthusiastic participation on boards, and his involvement in the Sydney Myer Fund and the Myer Foundation. For 30 years now the Kenneth Myer Lecture at the National Library of Australia has provided for eminent Australians with a forum to speak their minds and contribute to emerging national debates. The lecture has been presented by a range of what we now call thought leaders like Gough Whitlam and Fred Chaney to Professor Mick Dodson and most recently journalist and critic, Dr Anne Summers and in the last year of course journalist, essayist and author, Laura Tingle.
This lecture series would not be possible, ladies and gentlemen, without the support of Kenneth Myer himself, the Myer family and since 2015 the Myer Foundation. On behalf of the Library may I offer my heartfelt thanks to the Directors of the Myer Foundation for the Foundation’s continuing support of the Kenneth Myer Lecture. I especially thank Mr Leonard Vary, CEO of the Myer Foundation who joins us this evening. Welcome and thank you so much, thank you.
Ladies and gentlemen, tonight it’s my great pleasure to introduce journalist, Professor Peter Greste, to deliver the 2019 Kenneth Myer Lecture and I am delighted. As a former politician, ladies and gentlemen, I know firsthand that relations between journalists and politicians can be rather fraught but Peter’s career highlights – it really highlights the importance of a free press in holding accountable and in testing those that govern us and indeed those that seek to govern us. He’s an award-winning foreign correspondent who spent 25 years working for the BBC, for Reuters and Al Jazeera in some of the world’s most volatile places from Afghanistan to Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. He reported from the front lines and from beyond.
In December 2013 Peter himself unexpectedly became the story when he and two of his colleagues were arrested in Cairo while working for Al Jazeera and charged, you may recall, with terrorism offences. Who will ever forget the footage – remember the footage – from the courtroom in Cairo, an Egyptian court with Peter and his colleagues in a cage with faces drawn, in bleached white tunics. In letters smuggled from prison Peter described the arrests as an attack on media freedom and the letters help launched a global campaign that eventually got them released after more than 400 days in prison. Since his return to Australia in 2015 Peter has become an advocate for journalists not just in Australia but worldwide including through his establishment of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom in 2017. He wrote about his experiences in Egypt and what he regards as the global war on journalism in a book, The First Casualty.
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Professor Peter Greste to present the 2019 Kenneth Myer Lecture, Press Freedom in Australia and Why it is in Crisis. Please make him welcome.
P: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a wonderful honour to be here to be speaking to you delivering really quite an important anniversary lecture. Dates are often fairly meaningless but there is still something that feels important about the 30th anniversary. As Brett mentioned in his very generous introduction this is all about giving eminent Australians an opportunity to speak which makes me feel a little bit humble, I don’t quite figure how I came to be standing here before you. After all you’ve also got to admire the Library authorities who decided that the definition of eminent extended to one of Australia’s most notorious convicted terrorists.
I’m here at a very important moment in Australian politics. I think it’s important to let you know that I was invited – we first started discussing this back in April, well before the Australian Federal Police very firmly planted the issue of press freedom in the middle of public debate, the middle of the public agenda, the political agenda. The timing as it’s turned out then has been incredibly fortuitous but as we’ll see as I go through, this isn’t a massive surprise, certainly not to me and my colleagues because we started looking at the laws some years ago, trying to understand the way in which national security legislation has influenced press freedom in Australia.
I’ll come to that shortly but what I wanted to do this evening was to walk you through some of the history of press freedom, not just in Australia but more broadly around the world because I think it is important, it does help us understand how we wound up in the position that we’re in today, a situation where we had the AFP raiding the offices of journalists in the search for their sources.
So let’s begin with the idea that I find actually quite disturbing. Journalists are an endangered species and I don’t mean that rhetorically. Journalists are being murdered now at a greater rate than at any point since the turn of the century. Last year the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organisation, counted 54 journalists who were murdered for their work. That’s more than one per week. What about those in prison? Well the CPJ counts 250 that were there because of their work.
Now the CPJ has been monitoring the numbers since 1992 and what’s important – what’s more important than simply those raw figures is the trends over time. Now since 1992 what happened was that there was a surge through the early 1990s where journalists were being killed at the same sorts of numbers that we’re seeing now but that was largely due to a number of very serious conflicts. There was the Rwanda conflict, the Yugoslav conflict and there was Somalia and those were particularly dangerous for journalists because they were very serious, very savage ethnic conflicts in which a lot of local journalists who by definition found themselves as targets of another community within the group and so they were killed. They were caught up and they pushed the statistics to the very serious levels that we saw in the early ‘90s.
But then through the late ‘90s the numbers tailed off through what frankly now seems like something of a golden age for journalism. But it was in the early 2000s that they started to creep up again. The clue, one of the reasons I think that the numbers started to rise, we can find a clue in the nature of the charges that journalists are facing. The CPJ, in tracking the numbers, also works out the types of charges that the journalists are facing. Two-thirds, more than two-thirds, almost three-quarters of the journalists that are in prison at the moment are there on what the CPJ calls anti-state charges so we’re talking about things like sedition, like treason and yes, terrorism just as I was in Egypt.
Now the key, and doesn’t take a particularly visionary person to recognise, that the biggest event, the biggest single event to take place in the early part of this century was 9/11. Now that is important because of the way it changed not just the nature of conflict but the nature of the journalists’ relation to conflict. Let me explain what I mean. Let’s go back to pre-9/11 where a lot of the conflicts were over tangible things, things that you could stick your finger on like land or water or ethnicity and in those kinds of conflicts journalists were by definition observers.
Now of course it was dangerous, it’s always been dangerous operating on frontlines, particularly in places where bits of metal are flying around at supersonic speeds or you’re uncovering stories that men with guns would rather keep hidden. But for the most part we were recognised as separate to the conflict. But then came 9/11 and there was one particular moment that I can actually put my finger on. That moment when George W Bush stood before Congress, special joint session of Congress and he declared that in this war on terror you’re either with us or you are with the terrorists.
Now let me go back to Afghanistan in 1995 to talk a little bit about the way things operated then because Afghanistan for me has become a very important benchmark, a touchstone for this. I was there as a correspondent working for the BBC and I was doing what any responsible journalist would do, crossing the frontlines to speak to all of the parties involved. Now of course it was dangerous but I felt two things, I felt that I had an obligation as a responsible journalist to fulfil that duty to be genuinely neutral to the conflict, genuinely impartial, to give equal to all of those involved so that we could have an accurate, fair understanding of what was taking place, of why each of the parties was doing what they were doing, what their policies were, what their goals were and so on. But I also did it because I felt that it was a matter of my own security, my own safety.
As a clean-shaven white guy in a country full of brown-skinned, bearded blokes I stood out like a beacon and sooner or later someone on the other side of the frontlines would see me in their rifle sights and I felt that it was vitally important that they not see me as the enemy and therefore feel completely justified in pulling the trigger.
So one day there was a new group that arrived on the outskirts of Kabul and started laying siege to the city and so we needed to do what I’ve just been describing and cross the frontlines. I remember strapping on the bulletproof vest, raising – hoisting the BBC flag on the back of our beaten-up old Land Rover, clenching our bottoms together and then driving gingerly across the frontlines on a day when things had settled down. As we approached the frontlines I remember seeing the sandbagged barrier and a black turbaned head poked its way above the sandbags and a voice yelled out ah, BBC, welcome to Taliban.
The Taliban accepted us as observers to the conflict, they understood that we had a duty and a responsibility to be there and to report back from their side of the lines. They didn’t necessarily agree with us or like our politics but they accepted us as legitimate. Similarly the governments encouraged us to cross those frontlines because they too understand the role that we played in trying to make sense of the conflict, in interrogating the Taliban, in trying to understand what drove them, what motivated them and what their goals were.
But then let’s fast-forward to 2001 when George W Bush made that statement, you are either with us or you are with the terrorists. What he did was that he made it a binary choice, you are either on one side of the line with the United States or if you dared cross to the other side then you became guilty of advocating terrorist ideology. This is not an abstract idea. What he did was turn a conflict over tangible things into a conflict over ideas and in that conflict for ideas the space where ideas are transmitted becomes by definition a part of the battle space itself. That is one of the most important messages that I want you to take home this evening. The media has become a part of the battlefield in ways that we never were before 9/11.
Now this had some very serious tangible results. Al Jazeera managed to get after 9/11 the one interview that I’d wager pretty much every journalist in the world would have given their right arm for and that was with Osama Bin Laden. Now whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of 9/11 attacks you cannot deny the editorial justification for speaking and interrogating Osama Bin Laden. We needed to understand what it was that motivated him, we needed to understand what the enemy was doing if you’re on that side of the lines. It was a vitally important thing to do. But some weeks later a US bomb fell squarely on Al Jazeera’s bureau in Kabul. Now the Americans insisted that it was a mistake but they also then later acknowledged that they had targeted what they’d considered to be a legitimate terrorist target.
Soon after that, after Kabul fell there was a group of journalists travelling in a convoy from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan through to Kabul and it was carrying a dear friend of mine, Maria Grazia Cutuli and a wonderful Australian cameraman called Harry Burton as well as three other journalists. The Taliban ambushed the convoy, they let everybody else go but they pulled aside all of the journalists, they dragged them into the hills outside of a town called Surobi and they emptied the magazines of their Kalashnikovs into them.
They were captured, the men that were responsible for the killing were arrested and they were captured and they were placed on trial. They admitted their involvement but they said they were acting on orders from their superiors to go after journalists. All of a sudden journalists were being targeted not because of anything specific they had done but because of what they had come to represent, because they were transmitting ideas that were uncomfortable to each of the belligerents.
Now since then, since 9/11 what we have seen is a shift in the way that governments operate. They’ve started to pass all sorts of pieces of national security legislation in the name of the war on terror. The war on terror has given licence to governments all over the world to pass these laws supposedly in the name of protecting us. Let me be absolutely clear that I do not challenge, I do not question the importance of maintaining our laws, of keeping them up-to-date but let’s have a look at what happened to us in Cairo.
I was in - called to Cairo in December of 2013 to cover the bureau for Al Jazeera and my job at that point was to report on the unfolding political crisis that had emerged after an interim government which had been installed by the military was trying to re-establish control and authority over the country. Six months earlier the military had ousted the first democratically elected government in Egypt’s history which just happened to be the Muslim Brotherhood. Now I was there doing as I mentioned earlier, speaking to all of the parties involved in the conflict. The government would make some changes to the constitution, we’d pick up the telephone and called the opposition to try – and then we’d find an analyst to make sense of it all. It was vanilla journalism, it was very routine, it was nothing particularly dramatic or special.
Now the government at the time had also taken to passing all sorts of national security legislation but it defined the law so loosely that it considered that anything that threatened the integrity of the state to be an act of terror. Now again on the face of it you can understand, they felt that they were being attacked from all sides and they insisted that they needed these laws to maintain – to give the security agencies the kinds of tools that they needed to silence, to stop, to put down any physical threats to the state. We were concerned about if of course because it had implications for the work that we were doing but we also took the government at its word when it said don’t worry, this is not about you guys, we’re not going to go after journalists. We have press freedom written into our constitution, after all, this is for national security.
So on the night of December the 28th of 2013 I was getting ready to go out for dinner with an old friend of mine and I remember dancing around the hotel room listening to Triple J, streaming it through my laptop and there was a knock on the door. [Knocks on wood]. That was a little bit unusual. When anybody needed to get hold of me they always used the telephone but I didn’t think too much about it and as I approached the door there was a rather [knocks on wood] more urgent, forceful knock. I cracked the door open and as I did it was flung inside as if there was a powerful spring behind it and the room was filled with men in plain clothes. I was pushed to the back of the room and they went through the room and proceeded to ransack it.
It was a deeply scary, traumatising, troubling moment because I had no idea what was going on. Remember I had no idea that there was any problem at all at the time, no impression, no inkling that this was going to come. I took some comfort from the fact that they moved with a degree of professionalism and coordination that suggested that this was a disciplined police unit of some sort but it was really only when they placed me under arrest and drag me down and threw me in the police cells that I recognised that this was something that the police were involved rather than a bunch of thugs.
I learnt then that they’d also arrested my two colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian Canadian, Bureau Chief and Baher Mohamed, another Egyptian producer. A few days later we were sent down to the National Intelligence Directorate for interrogation. That’s where we learnt the charges that we were facing. We’d been accused of aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation, financing a terrorist organisation, broadcasting false news with intent to undermine national security, broadcasting terrorist ideology.
When you think about what those charges mean you’ll appreciate that they’re about as serious as you could possibly get short of actually pulling the pin on a grenade and rolling it into the middle of a crowded room like this. The problem for us, the real challenge for us was trying to reconcile the gap between what we were accused of doing, those very serious charges of terrorism, and the reality of what we had actually been doing which was pretty mundane, bog standard ordinary journalism that involved speaking to the opposition. We wrestled with this for a long time. As interrogation progressed we also learned that the authorities were looking for evidence of our sources, our contacts, and the people that we had been speaking to across the country including our Muslim Brotherhood contacts.
There’s been - since my release even there’s been a lot of talk about why we’d been arrested. A lot of people said well maybe it’s about this struggle between Qatar and Egypt. Al Jazeera of course is owned and financed by the Qatari Government and Qatar had sponsored the Muslim Brotherhood, was a very vocal and wealthy supporter of the Brotherhood. So when the Brotherhood was ousted people have said well it was because you were caught up in that greater geopolitical struggle. The more I thought about that I thought well that doesn’t make sense. If you were trying to build a conspiracy about Qatari malfeasance in Egypt why would you arrest an Australian and two Egyptians? That didn’t make a great deal of sense.
Others have said well maybe it was Al Jazeera was supposedly allegedly conspiring with the Brotherhood. That was certainly the substance of the charges against us. But again if you were trying to make that case why would you come after an Australian who’d only been in the country for two weeks and who spoke Arabic, who had no real deep contacts? There were plenty of other journalists who they could have gone after if they were trying to build a conspiracy theory.
In the end the only reason I could think of was that they came after us not because of anything we had done but because of what we had come to represent. They were trying to silence the press because we were broadcasting uncomfortable journalism that challenged the orthodoxy, that challenged the political narrative that they were trying to sell to establish their power and control over Egypt.
Now Egypt isn’t unique in this regard. Turkey for example, the world’s greatest, the most prolific jailer of journalists. Currently last count there are 67 that they have in prison. Dozens more news organisations have been shut down and hundreds of journalists are currently out of work in Egypt – in Turkey, rather. Almost all of them are there on guess what? Yes, terrorism charges. Most of the wave of arrests started after the attempted coup in 2016 when the Egyptian authorities started rounding up and arresting anybody who challenged their authority. They accused them of being involved with the coup, being supporters of the coup and therefore by definition being involved with advocating terrorist ideology or conspiring with terrorism.
In Myanmar you might have heard of two Reuter’s journalists who were recently imprisoned, also this time on sedition charges. They were charged for an investigation that they did into the murder of 10 Rohingya men. Now what happened there was that they had done incredibly thorough work, they found that a military unit had been responsible for the murders, they were able to identify the men that were involved with the murders and they were then called to a meeting by the police who said – who told them that they had some information to help in their investigation. The police gave the two Reuters journalists some documents and immediately arrested them for handling classified information.
We know this because one of the police officers who was involved actually confessed in court and yet the men were still convicted and sentenced to guess what? Seven years in prison, the same sentence that I and my colleagues received. Under enormous international pressure the Reuters journalists were finally released but they weren’t released out of any sense of justice, they were released simply to get the pressure off their backs. But the point remains that the government was using national security legislation to silence uncomfortable journalism.
We’ve seen similar laws passed all over the world, particularly amongst the usual suspects like Russia, the Philippines, China and so on. But here’s where it starts to get uncomfortable, this is not just related to authoritarian regimes. We all know about the United States, that home of the first amendment to the US constitution. For those of you who don’t know it’s a wonderful piece of brevity which in short says that Congress shall pass no law infringing the freedom of association, of speech, of religion or of the press. It acts as a very powerful break on the legislators from passing legislation that intrudes on press freedom.
Now I have a great deal of affection for President Obama, he actively and very personally got involved in our case, speaking to President Sisi on numerous occasions. But the US has the Espionage Act which was passed in 1917 at the height of the first world war and depending on how you do the sums, from 1917 until 2008, more than 90 years, the Act was used about six or seven times. From 2008 until 2016 the Act was used more often than all of the times – all of the Presidents before and it was under President Obama that the Act was used.
Now again we would understand that these are dangerous times, last thing the Americans want to do is to allow spies running around except that in almost every case the US Government was using either for journalists or their sources, uncovering stories that were particularly uncomfortable. We’ve since seen President Trump use the law for other whistle-blowers.
What about the UK? Well the UK has Extremist Disruption Orders which were passed to stop anybody who might be promoting terrorist values or ideologies that are supposedly quote contrary to British values, whatever those might be. Under the law Parliament or the Minister can ban people from – ban people from associating with certain others, from taking on positions of public authority and so on.
Let me give you a passage from an article called Shaking the Mains that I’d wager would have any British Attorney-General reaching for an EDO. The author wrote no empire intoxicated with the red wine of power and plunder of weaker races has yet lived long in this world and this empire which is based on organised exploitation of physically weaker races of the earth and upon a continuous exhibition of brute force cannot live if there is a just god ruling the universe. It is high time that people were made to realise that the fight is a fight to the finish.
That’s a fantastic piece of prose, isn’t it? Guess who wrote that? It wasn’t an Islamic state commander or a Taliban leader, some radical preacher. It was Mahatma Gandhi. Yeah, he wrote it back in March 1922 calling for an end to British dominion over India and we know – we all know Gandhi’s unbreakable commitment to passive resistance and nonviolence. But a prosecutor wanting to silence dissent and – could easily twist those phrases like the empire cannot live or the fight is a fight to the finish as a call to arms and put the author in prison. Well guess what? The prosecutor did, yeah. Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of sedition although he was released after two on health grounds.
So what about us? Australia. Well after going through imprisonment and arrest in Egypt you can imagine how it felt for me to see the AFP agents raiding the home of Annika Smethurst, the News Corp journalist and the ABC offices in a search for evidence of sources to two key stories. That was a very difficult moment for me because I never expected to see that kind of thing here in Australia.
Let me remind you what those stories were about. Annika was reporting on plans or in the conversation within the government to extend the powers of the Australian Signals Directorate, our international electronics eavesdropping agency so that they could spy on Australians, on ordinary conversations, private conversations inside our own country. That’s not the case at the moment, they’re not allowed to do that. The government was considering changing their policy to allow them to do just that.
Now Annika in the course of her reporting didn’t reveal anything that damaged national security but what she exposed was a conversation that I think we all ought to have known about, that ought to have been a part of the public debate. I’m not making a judgement about whether it was right or wrong for the ASD to expand its powers, that’s a conversation that we all should be having but it’s something that we all need to be discussing and be aware of and understand.
What about the ABC? Well they’d been reporting on allegations that the Australian Special Forces had been involved in war crimes in Afghanistan. Now again the journalist had been very careful not to expose anything that might undermine national security or threaten the operational integrity of the Special Forces. But they did expose something that is genuinely in the public interest because remember, the Special Forces are fighting a war in our names, what they do is on our behalf. Again whether or not we think it’s the right thing for them to do, we need to be aware of what is happening. This is genuinely in the public interest.
Now by drawing these parallels I’m not suggesting, I am absolutely not suggesting that Australia is about to become Egypt any time soon. Clearly our institutions are strong, our democracy is deep. But here’s the thing, the political imperatives that drove the Egyptians to draft loosely worded legislation that was then used to silence uncomfortable journalism are the same political imperatives that drove the Australian Government to pass loosely worded legislation that has then been used to silence uncomfortable journalism. This is important.
Since 9/11 Professor George Williams from Sydney University has been tracking the number of laws that we’ve been passing, one of the most eminent constitutional lawyers in the country. George Williams has counted more than 70, more than 70, more than any other western democracy in the world that have been passed by Australian parliaments most of which intrude in some way, small or large, on our own civil liberties. I’m particularly concerned about those that limit press freedom.
Let me give you a few examples. The section 35P of the ASIO Act which allows the Minister the power to declare any security operation, what’s called an SIO, a special intelligence operation. Now an SIO is designed to allow ASIO officers the capacity to operate undercover, to do things illegal in the course of their jobs, for example someone running a narcotics – they’re trying to break open a drug smuggling ring, for example, is able to carry narcotics to smuggle drugs so that they can break open the operations of the ring so I understand why that’s there. But the SIO designation is secret and it remains secret in perpetuity so a journalist who is investigating local reports about an ASIO operation that’s gone wrong runs the risk of finding themselves in breach of the law because they are publishing information about an SIO and unwittingly finding themselves in prison.
Now under this Act there is no public interest defence, there is no sunset clause, there is no judicial review of this so it gives the Minister the capacity to use the law to throw a blanket over almost any operation that he might want to keep secret. I’m not suggesting that it has been done, I’m not suggesting that it will be done but that – the extent of that power is deeply troubling. I’m not suggesting that we don’t have the capacity for throwing an SIO over a security operation, clearly it’s necessary but it’s got to be limited in a way that allows the press to do its job in holding government to account.
We have the data retention legislation. Now the data retention legislation was sold to us as essential to give the security services the capacity to intercept terrorist communications and stop mass casualty attacks. For those of you who don’t know, the metadata is not the content of our communications but it is the information about the communications. So it’s the telephone numbers that you call, where you were when you called, where you made the call, the time of day that you called and so on, the duration of the call. It’s not the content of your email, the emails that you send but it is the addresses that you send them to, where they were at the time, where you were at the time. It’s the location information on your cell phone device, it’s the websites that you visit, the amount of time that you spent on the websites.
Sounds innocuous enough but the information is so rich that a former FBI officer once said that you don’t need to know the content of the communications to understand and deduce what someone is thinking and what they are planning and what they are up to. That’s why the legislation was passed in the first place.
Well under the data retention legislation a whole host of government agencies, not just the security services but more than 20 in the legislation have unwarranted access to the metadata of every Australian. Last year the Telecommunications Alliance, an industry group said that they’d received 300,000 requests for metadata, 300,000. That’s 1,000 a day and they’ve received requests from more than 80 government agencies, most of which had used those 20 odd as proxies for their requests.
Now quite apart from what that means for our civil liberties what does it mean for journalists? Well that’s where things are a little bit better, there are journalist information warrants that the authorities have to get if they’re going to investigate a journalist’s metadata but those warrant applications take place in secret. There is a public interest advocate who is supposed to speak in the public interest but we don’t quite know what the definition of public interest might be and you could easily argue that the public interest is in maintaining public confidence in the institutions that the journalists are perhaps investigating. The fact is we just don’t know what goes on around the JIWs but we do know that several JIWs have been issued and we also know that the law has been broken as the authorities search through journalists’ metadata.
What it means though is that it is almost impossible for journalists to protect their sources. Every time a civil servant picks up a telephone and calls a journalist that information is logged. The same with emails. Every time the two cell phones come together that information is logged and can be tracked as metadata. Very, very difficult for us to do our jobs and protect our sources which is one of the most fundamental parts of the way that journalists operate. It’s gotten so bad that news organisations are telling their staff to use encrypted communications but guess what? We already have the Telecoms Amendment Act which compels any telecoms worker to help the government agencies hack into encrypted telecommunications.
There’s the Espionage and Foreign Interference Act which makes it an offence to – for a Commonwealth officer to release any information that might be damaging to Australia’s interests and that includes anything that might undermine confidence in our relations, Australia’s relations with our foreign partners. That includes things like trade and investment. Now it’s a good point to recognise that Witness K, the ASIS officer who exposed the fact that ASIS had bugged the East Timorese delegation during sensitive negotiations over oil rights in the Timor Sea has just confessed to espionage charges and Bernard Collaery, his lawyer, is also on charges under the Act.
You know all this would be okay if it was just limited to serious crimes of espionage but this is – let’s go back to those raids, it’s been used to go after stories that are politically contentious. I’ve been concerned about this for some time and I began working with – in fact what I saw in Egypt made me look at what was happening here in Australia with new eyes and I started working with my partners at the University of Queensland and my colleagues and friends over at Gilbert and Tobin who’ve been working with us at the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom.
We started trying to understand the way in which Australian laws criminalise journalism, undermined our capacity to protect our sources and we realised that it was so serious that we needed to publish a white paper. It turns out we published the paper in May, three weeks before the AFP raids took place and as much as I hate to say it we felt we were in a position to say we told you so. We were shocked, as shocked as any Australian was but not surprised.
But the white paper also contains a number of solutions and these are solutions that we have put to the PJCIS, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence Security which has just begun its hearings in – its public hearings into the Inquiry into Press Freedom that came as a result of the AFP raids and there are a number of things that we are proposing.
Now you’ll remember that I mentioned the first amendment in the United States. Well Australia of course has no such legal restraint. The most we have is an implied right of political communications that the High Court said could be inferred from our constitution. We have a system of representative democracy and you can’t have representative democracy without the capacities to talk about political issues and be informed about political issues and therefore the High Court says that we can infer or imply that within that system we have a right of political communication but that is it. There is no clear boundaries in our laws that stop our legislators from chipping away at press freedom and a whole host of other civil liberties. So we need – we think that there needs to be a Media Freedom Act that does that, performs that role, that effectively does the job of the first amendment in the United States.
We also think that there needs to be amendments to the national security legislation. A whole host of ways of tackling this but just as an example at the moment there is a public interest defence that journalists can use when they’re hauled into court to justify the work that they are doing but that doesn’t stop the raids from taking place, it does not stop the chilling effect that it has on sources. It doesn’t stop the journalists from going broke trying to raise the money to pay for these court cases and so that too has a chilling effect.
What we want to see is an exception. This is not to suggest that journalists shouldn’t be prosecuted but what we want is the burden of proof reversed. We want the authorities to have to show why that public interest defence would not apply before they get a warrant. We also think that warrants should be contested. This is something that the agencies are fiercely fighting but guess what? Even in the United Kingdom they have a system of contested warrants under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the PACE Act. We think that that system could be and should be adapted to work here in Australia.
There are a whole host of other ways of tackling it, there needs to be reform of our defamation law, there needs to be reform of our suppression – system of suppression orders, reform of Freedom of Information. Basically what we need to do is restore some measure of transparency and accountability into the government which I think has become dangerously obsessed with security and secrecy.
Now I know I’m getting boring by saying this but I am not suggesting that these laws are not needed. What I am arguing for is an appropriate mix of press freedom and national security. I do not use the word balance, by the way. You see the press needs to maintain, needs the capacity to from its role as the whistle of last resort. It is the means by which we have kept governments accountable in our democracy. It’s been imperfect, yes, often unedifying, yes, I completely get that and I know that people have lost their confidence in it but it has worked to keep us one of the most stable, safest and most prosperous places on the planet.
So there’s been this talk of a balance between press freedom and national security as if it’s a binary choice, as if we should have – if we have more of one we have less of the other. I think that’s a false idea, I think that gives a completely wrong impression because if national security is about anything surely it is about protecting, yes, the physical security of each and every one of us but it must also be about protecting the integrity of our political system. So if in trying to protect the former we undermine the latter then national security is not served. Our system of politics becomes weaker.
So in the interests of national security, ladies and gentlemen, press freedom in Australia must be preserved, must be protected, must be reinforced. Thank you.
M: Actually that’s the longest applause I’ve heard in this room, I think so – and I think really you’re just recognising a very insightful and thought-provoking lecture and one that in particular draws together Peter’s experience internationally and really asks up what is and what could happen here in Australia. So I think you’ll all agree as Peter has said it could not be more timely given recent discussions and events and no, we did not time this to coincide with the Parliamentary considerations.
I did want to say that the National Library is really very proud to be custodian of Peter’s personal papers including Peter’s letters and diaries written in prison, correspondence from his supporters as well as notebooks, court and travel documents kept by his family. Recently across my desk came a request to actually – from another institution to borrow an item for an exhibition and I did have a moment of thinking but it’s written on toilet paper.
Collections of journalists’ papers are really a great strength of the National Library’s manuscripts collections and Peter’s papers sit alongside those of many illustrious colleagues and predecessors so those from the past like Wilfred Burchett, Jill Jolliffe, Paul Lyneham and Anne Deveson. Together we feel they’re a really rich source of information on history of journalism in Australia as well as the events and personalities that have shaped the nation and the world.
We have time for just a few questions tonight and those who are regulars know the deal, you really need to wait to put up your hand, wait for a microphone to come to you not just because we’re recording but so that the hearing loop can be used and I would ask questions rather than statements, thank you.
A: Professor, you have painted a very glowing picture of the work of journalists but many in this audience will remember a very infamous, notorious Australian journalist by the name of Wilfred Burchett. I should like to hear your views, your comments on how the Australian Government treating him during that time, totally debarring him from returning to Australia. How does this character fit into your view of press freedom of –
P: Not comfortably at all. I mean I – look, I recognise Wilf Burchett. I’ve read several of Burchett’s books and I’ve also read a biography of Burchett so I know who he was and what he did. For those of you in the audience who don’t know, Wilf Burchett was unapologetically, I think, avowedly a leftist. He reported from Vietnam from the Viet Kong side of things. He was very strongly aligned with Communist ideas and ideologies. But again I would argue that Wilf Burchett gave us a perspective that wasn’t available here. Wilf reported as I mentioned from the Viet Kong side of the war and I am not apologising or excusing biased reporting but equally I think that there is a case to suggest that we had – that there was real value in understanding what was going on from the North Vietnamese. I think Burchett brought a perspective that simply wasn’t available.
Now that doesn’t mean that our politicians should have supported him vocally, they’re free to criticise him and criticise the way that he approached his work but Burchett I don’t think as far as I’m aware did anything technically illegal and I find it quite disturbing, quite troubling that he would have been banned from Australia. The thing is that we have a duty to engage in those kinds of arguments, the debates. We have a duty and a responsibility to open ourselves up to views that are uncomfortable.
I will never forget listening to – there’s a wonderful documentary called the fog of war with Robert McNamara and there are a few heads nodding here. Anyone who’s seen will know it, it’s an incredibly powerful, insightful documentary but there was one thing that I’ll never forget from that and that was a conversation that McNamara relates where he’s speaking to one of his former Viet Kong rivals. They said – they told McNamara that you thought you were fighting a war of Communism, we thought we were fighting a war of colonialism. I think that if we had a better reporting from the north we might have understood better what the ideologies were and it must by definition have been sympathetic in the sense that it was an attempt to understand and get inside the heads of what the north Vietnamese were thinking.
Now again I’m not excusing the ideologies, I’m not necessarily saying that it was by definition right but I think that there was value in seeing it and understanding it. So I think that Wilf Burchett did bring something to Australia that wasn’t available and I think it is a tragedy that he was banned in the way that he was and vilified.
Shall we have –
A: Peter, during World War 2 and for some time afterwards there were things called D notices when sensitive information related to national security was protected from publication. Would that work now? Did it work then? Would those sorts of D notices be observed now by journalists?
P: Okay, there are a whole host of questions in there. I’m not an expert on D notices. If you speak to the old-timers they seem to suggest that they did work. I mean hands up those of you who remember from that period seeing anything that violated a D notice. There are some people, some journalists who felt that in fact too much respect was paid to D notices, that they were used to suppress things that actually probably should have been reported. But the consensus – or not the consensus but a lot of people seemed to feel that they did work because there was a degree of cooperation and collaboration between the authorities and an understanding of what the D notices were all about and why they were issued. There was also a point – one of the ideas intrinsic in the D notices was a sense that the news organisations would have enough information about why those notices were issued in the first place and so there was a degree of collusion if you like.
I would like to think – could they be issued today? Would they be respected today? I don’t really know the answer to that, I think one of the reasons that we - might be harder is because the definitions around what journalism is and who is a journalist have become far looser and it’s become much harder to contain that information. I don’t really know whether they’d work. The fact that they no longer exist though suggests that the authorities certainly wouldn’t have confidence in them.
Is there any ladies –
M: There is.
P: There are plenty there. The lady in the back first and then we’ll come there.
A: Thank you. Peter, given that you are so engaged in this issue around press freedom can I ask you, in your dialogue with Australians what you think is the level of care that Australians have about press freedom and why?
P: Well it’s interesting. Waleed Aly after the raids asked precisely that question, he asked a rhetorical question. He said hands up how many Australians don’t care? He wagered that most Australians would stick their hands up, most Australians would say oh look, it’s about journalists, it’s not about us. Now they’ve got it coming to them, they’re a bunch of purveyors of sleaze and it’s all fake news and stuff so p -. I think he’s probably right but I also think that the answer you get depends on the question you ask and if you ask hands up how many Australians would feel comfortable with relying on the Facebook posts and Twitter feeds for our information of what takes place in government then I think most Australians would probably agree that that’s not a great way of functioning.
We need – and we’re seeing it in the subscriptions now of a lot of the main news organisations. There isn’t a great deal of trust but people are flying back to those news organisations because I think they recognise the need for a professional class of journalist to operate and hold - and interrogate government and hold them to account.
The other thing that I think people forget is that this isn’t about us, it is not about journalists, this is about maintaining the system of transparency and accountability that keeps all of us informed about what government is up to in our names. At the risk of sounding really patronising, forgive me for a moment but they work for us. When we vote we hire them, when we pay our taxes we pay their wages and so as responsible employers we have a duty to know what our employees are doing in our names. You know?
The means by which that is done is through the media. Now again I fully accept that it is imperfect, that the media is not working as it should and there is a great – there is a huge loss of trust out of this but we haven’t got a better system.
I don’t think journalists themselves are entirely to blame. There is a fantastic lady called Claire Wardle and I was watching her in fact earlier today, she was talking about fake news and deep fakes and so on, what she calls information disorder. She made the point that it’s not that there’s necessarily a great deal of fake news that journalists are producing, it’s that there is so much other stuff that is fake and falsified that it is now possible to dismiss anything true as fake and get away with it. We all know that from Donald Trump. When that is – when that happens then all of a sudden the very idea of truth becomes devalued. When that happens what we need more than ever are professional news gatherers who are capable, who have the resources and the capacity, the professional capacity and the contacts and skills to do this.
Now again I understand it’s imperfect, journalists haven’t been doing a great job but a big part of that has been the way that the structure has functioned, the way – the internet structure and I can talk about this a little bit more. I know I’m getting a little bit off-topic here. But I think that the way the internet has evolved to prioritise news that favours polemic over analysis, that favours speed over accuracy, celebrity gossip over serious news has broken the system. News organisations cannot afford to pay for good journalists at the moment. Newsrooms are haemorrhaging staff and so what we have is a structure, a technological and financial structure which is driving news in the polar opposite direction to what we need it to play in a functioning democracy.
Now that’s not the fault of journalists, it’s the fault of the system, the technological ecology that’s evolved. Again I’m not necessarily blaming the tech entrepreneurs, they’ve done their jobs very well to harvest our attention and monetise it and make fortunes for themselves but it is not designed to serve news or public debate. So we need to figure out how to fix that, that is absolutely a part of the equation. We can’t - simply dealing with the law alone isn’t enough to fix it, we need to tackle these really big, deep fundamental structural problems but that’s another big, long Kenneth Myer lecture.
A: Peter, with the amount of commentary, views and opinions in news across all platforms today do you feel this has contributed to the push for eroding press freedoms by governments around the world?
P: Absolutely and I think it’s part of a perfect storm, the erosion of trust, the rise of fake news and I hate that term because it sounds like we all understand what it means but it tells us absolutely nothing about what’s really going on. A lot of it is distorted context and again that’s another whole other lecture but yes, the problem is precisely that, that loss of trust in truth, in facts, in basic information has given new – politicians the scope to get away with this sort of stuff and that again is I think why we need to push back. That doesn’t mean we can escape these other big public debates about how we organise news, how it should be set up to function and service but yeah, that’s indisputably part of the problem as well. It’s just coincidence that we’re seeing the war on terror and the political opportunity that’s generated at the same time as we’ve seen the digital revolution undercut the structures around news.
M: We’re going to take just one more. Actually there was a lady up the back who had her hand up. I’ve lost now so we can take just one more question so – okay. A quick question otherwise we’ll have no time for drinks afterwards.
A: Thanks Peter, a really great talk. I was really interested in identifying 9/11 as the turning point ‘cause I think it’s sometimes also described as the first major terrorist attack designed for television, the idea that the twin towers, that the whole terrorising impact of the world of that was that notion that it was able to be televised, that it was so visually spectacular and we were all bombarded by those images afterwards. So do you think that that – as we talk about that relationship between the sort of – the digital revolution and the process that you’re describing, it’s – I don’t know, it’s almost a point at which the nature of politics and conflict changed around being about the image more than the –
P: Yeah, I take issue that that was the first, it was certainly the most spectacular and the one that sticks in everybody’s minds. I can’t – damn, I wish I could remember the quote but there’s one Algerian revolutionary I think from the 1950s said that it’s far more effective that you murder one person in the streets than 100 people in - out in the bush somewhere. The PLO understood that very graphically when they attacked the Munich Olympics. It’s been a feature of – I mean that’s what terrorism is by definition, it is designed for – to exploit eyeballs, to grab eyeballs and grab attention, to terrorise. So 9/11 I don’t think was the first, it was certainly the most spectacular. But it was really after 9/11, and I think in a lot of respects Daniel Pearl’s beheading was perhaps the first that exploited social media.
Daniel Pearl, for those of you who don’t know, was a Wall Street Journal correspondent who was operating in Pakistan and he was kidnapped by Al Qaeda and he was – sorry, it was Talib – no, it was Al Qaeda who kidnapped him. They beheaded him and they filmed it and posted the images all over social media. That was really the first opportunity that they recognised the way in which social media could be weaponised and used against us and it was very close to 9/11 but it was – I think that was really the key moment when social media changed and the dynamic of modern technology changed and the relationship of terrorism to social media changed fundamentally. But terrorism itself has always been exploiting those channels if you like.
M: I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for questions this evening except that you can still have more conversation over drinks up in the foyer this evening and of course you can also visit our bookshop where Peter’s book and his family’s book are available for a discount tonight so that’s great. But I know that gentlemen up the back, you wanted to ask questions, I’m sure that Peter will be happy to have a chat when we’re up with a drink in his hand.
So colleagues I’d like you – or friends and visitors, I’d like you again to thank Peter Greste and also to thank the Myer Foundation because it’s actually their support that allows us to have a great mind like this in our midst and to be speaking to us this evening. So once again let’s thank Peter.
End of recording