Media watchdog muzzled: national security gag order spells death for press freedom

WikiLeaks suppression order censors the press on "national security" grounds [Source: Nikhil / Flickr]

WikiLeaks suppression order censors the press on “national security” grounds [Source: Nikhil / Flickr]

The suppression order at the heart of Australia’s biggest bribery scandal exploited national security fears to block much-needed media scrutiny.

Anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks revealed the order – the details of which can’t legally be published – banned publishing certain corruption allegations against high-profile politicians overseas. The order’s purpose was to prevent damage to Australia’s international relations.

Protecting national security is a legitimate reason for courts to issue suppression orders.

Avoiding embarrassment and damage to reputation, which is what the order really appears to be about, is not. Australian case law makes this clear.

This isn’t the first time ‘international relations’ and ‘national security’ have been linked together in the battle to control the press.

When the embarrassing Indonesia spying scandal caused the government diplomacy headaches last year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott criticised the ABC’s decision to publish the story. He said the decision made Australia’s national security interests “difficult”.

Previously, such threats to press freedom have been only talk. Not anymore.

And the result is chilling: corruption allegations have remained hidden and unscrutinised, the public uninformed. The media’s role as society “watchdog” is ceasing to exist in this post-Edward Snowden era – all for the sake of politics.

If the suppression order remains standing, it would be an alarming precedent for Australia, where free speech remains only an implied right. Media censorship should be the exception, not the rule.

But the making of suppression orders – particularly in Victoria – has been too common.

In its 2014 press freedom report, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance referred to Victoria as being “the suppression order capital of Australia”. A recent study found 1,501 orders had been issued by Victorian courts in the five years to 2012, and at a rate that appeared to be increasing over time.

The apparent willingness of the courts to stifle the press in the national interest shows media censorship has become the norm. This is unacceptable and unjustified in light of the vital role journalism plays in democracy. WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange had it right: national security shouldn’t be used as a “blanket phrase” to cover up corruption.

But against a backdrop of recent national security reforms, such as the new laws against disclosing details of ASIO operations, it seems “national security” is now a justification for media censorship. Unfortunately, democracy is the real victim.


This article was also published on City Journal Online on 15 September 2014.

4 thoughts on “Media watchdog muzzled: national security gag order spells death for press freedom

  1. Great article Nadia! I always struggle a bit over the morality of international realpolitik – on the one hand, it seems intuitive and fundamentally right that the citizens of a democracy be given information about the actions of our leaders. On the other hand – and this is where I start to waver – it can’t be denied that a great deal of international diplomacy and trade is done by necessity out of the public eye. I completely agree that national security is too easily used as a justification for all manner of secrecy, but I can understand the reasoning behind such statements – particularly concerning the sheer scale of these decisions. If a contract that gives jobs to thousands of Australians is won through bribery, is it morally justifiable to jeopardise that deal through public exposure? How clean can we realistically expect our hands to be? But without scrutiny, how can we be sure that such secrets are in the public interest?
    I don’t know the answer to these questions! But I thought your article dealt with the subject really well.

  2. Hi Nadia – this is a fantastic piece. Really clear and succinct. I actually hadn’t read that much about this so it was really informative!

    It’s really clever how you’ve drawn the link between the political threat to journalism – Tony Abbott criticising the ABC for reporting against Australia’s national interest – and the judicial one. I suppose the political statements and actions that impact on the freedom of the press get the most attention because politicians are in the public eye. In general people pay far less attention to things that are happening in the courts, so your piece is really helpful in analysing this.

    In terms of my opinion, I think I agree with Paul’s comment above. There is a balance that needs to be found between considering the harmful effects that disclosing certain information could have, and ensuring that openness prevails. It is a tricky one that comes up time and time again and I suppose the best thing to do is to keep following events and keep on having discussions like these.

  3. Great article Nadia – and timely. Let’s all give thanks that that the powers that be haven’t (yet!) issued any kind of order requiring the Australian media to remove past coverage of the scandal, which is as easily turned up as is coverage from international sources. My favourite take on the debacle is from one of the named international politicians calling for openness and transparency on behalf of the Australian Government on this case- poignant words, regardless of his reasons. In short- way to go “Team Australia” – kicking goals again!

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