The Precarious State of Free Speech in Australia as Revealed by WikiLeaks Exposés

A Secret Australia: Revealed By Wikileaks Exposés

In Australia, we’ve seen a concerning trend where public interest journalism and whistleblowers have become increasingly threatened by criminal prosecution. Indeed, it seems the Australian Federal Government can be far more concerned with prosecuting journalists and whistleblowers than prosecuting the people who have committed the crimes, maladministration and corruption that the journalists helped to uncover.

Jennifer Robinson, barrister and part of the legal team acting for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010, and Peter Cronau, investigative journalist & producer of ABC’s Four Corners, joined the Australia Institute in December 2020 to discuss: A Secret Australia: Revealed By Wikileaks Exposés. This discussion is now available via our Follow the Money summer special podcast series >

The importance of public information & journalism

Knowledge empowers people to put demands upon our government. In a democracy, governments should be able to withstand some tough questioning, including investigative journalism. Worryingly in Australia over recent years we’ve seen raids by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on ABC offices and journalists’ homes, and journalists threatened with arrest, for revealing information in the public interest. The importance of investigative journalism is paramount: clear and truthful information is integral for democracy to work well.

A Secret Australia details the role of WikiLeaks in facilitating that type of investigative journalism, providing a secure conduit for anonymous document ‘drops’ and for whistleblowers to come forward. It allows for the release of information that would otherwise never see the light of day.

WikiLeaks’ approach treats journalism as a permanent archive, not just passing news. A permanent archive of original documents with explanations covering what they’re about so that people can look back and read them for themselves.

Robinson and Cronau remind us that without safeguards like strong public interest journalism Australians can be manipulated and as citizens, we are often expected to ‘nod and go along’.

“Reminding us of all of that empowers us, [A Secret Australia] sets our minds open for countering the next thing that happens,” said Peter Cronau in discussion with the Australia Institute.

Public interest journalism allows people to see the system at work

Unless steps are taken to protect whistleblowers and public interest journalism, Robinson cautions that Australia could lose the ability for whistleblowers to come forward if they have concerns that are not receiving a proper response through official channels.

“WikiLeaks’ publication of an information operations manual from the Australian Defence Force (ADF), for example, revealed how the public affairs section of the ADF acts to avoid constraints on its actions in conflicts overseas. Those “constraints” are things like Parliamentary oversight, public opinion and journalism — all of which are key to a well-functioning democracy,” said Peter Cronau.

“Spectacularly, that document also says that the reason they wanted to [avoid such constraints] was to impress on the international community that Australia can still make a contribution. By ‘international community’, it means the United States, of course.

“Think about it. We have a public affairs section of the Defence Force funded by Australian taxpayers, meant to put a smiling face on what the work of the Defence Force does. To keep our eyes away, to keep journalists distracted.

“Clearly, the defence forces do an enormously good amount of work defending the country and looking after Australia’s interests. But when there are downsides, Australians do not want them to be papered over,” said Cronau.

The danger of the prosecution of Julian Assange

Founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is currently being prosecuted by the United States for violating the U.S Espionage Act by obtaining and publishing documents in 2010. Assange’s prosecution represents a great threat to journalism, freedom of the press, and free speech. Yet the Australian Government has done very little to assist this Australian citizen — who has helped change journalism forever, been the recipient of journalism awards and reportedly nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize multiple times.

Image via Australian Federal Police

Not only is the prosecution of Julian Assange under the U.S. Espionage Act a risk to democracy, if the prosecution is successful it will set a dangerous precedent that any journalist, anywhere in the world, could face prosecution in the United States for publishing truthful information about their country.

But it is not just the United States. Journalism in Australia has faced similar threats, with an ABC journalist targeted by the AFP for publishing truthful information about alleged war crimes committed by Australian soldiers.

“[The Australian Government] are running the same argument as in the Assange case, and that’s why it’s even more dangerous than we first thought,” said Jennifer Robinson in discussion with the Australia Institute.

“Australia is in a very different position because we don’t have a Bill of Rights, or a right to free speech. The implied right to political communication, such as it is, is not sufficient.”

Australia’s disclosure laws are terrifying

Breaching Australia’s disclosure laws could lead to a potential 25 years, or up to life, in prison. There is no public interest defense and no exclusion for journalists. The potential sentences under Australia’s laws far outweigh anything you see under the Official Secrets Act in the United Kingdom, for example.

“It is actually quite terrifying when you get to grips with the extent of our national security laws,” said Jennifer Robinson.

“If we don’t do something about it, the freedoms Australians have are going to keep on slipping away.”

And a lot of it happens in secret.

“In the war on terrorism phase of this century, more than 70 laws have been produced that have affected the right to free speech and limited journalists in what they can do,” said Peter Cronau.

“As a journalist, I can have a warrant taken out on me. They can’t look at my phone records or metadata legally without a warrant. Well, warrants are just warrants and can be prepared. Not many are prepared, only about a dozen a year on journalists. But that’s a dozen journalists a year whose contacts and phone calls and movements and attitudes have been monitored in great depth. Well, maybe not great depths — we don’t know! The journalists are not told if there’s a warrant out on them. It’s a huge intrusion into journalists ability to tell the public what’s going on.

“Really, that’s all journalism is. To tell the general public what’s going on. Without that, we’re blind and we’ll just believe the next narrative, the next focus group statement from the leader.

“The power is in the public’s hands and with information, they can use it,” said Cronau.

A Secret Australia: Revealed by the WikiLeaks Exposés, edited by Felicity Ruby and Peter Cronau, can be found online here.

Subscribe to the Australia Institute’s podcast series Follow The Money on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on the Australia Institute’s website.

The full webinar: A Secret Australia Revealed By Wikileaks Exposés, with Jenifer Robinson & Peter Cronau, was recorded live on 02 December 2020 and is available on the Australia Institute’s YouTube channel here.

an independent think-tank based in Canberra > australia.org.au