Press freedom: Australia should do better

Worldwide, around 50 journalists are killed every year while doing their job. Many more are held in jail: at present 570 journalists are held in detention. China is the main offender, followed by Myanmar, Belarus, Russia, Israel, Iran, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. Some of these 570 journalists, including 25 in Mexico, have “disappeared”.

These are some of the figures from the 2024 World Press Freedom Index: journalism under political pressure, by Reporters sans frontiers. To quote their summary:

As more than half the world's population goes to the polls in 2024, RSF is warning of a worrying trend revealed by the 2024 World Press Freedom Index: a decline in the political indicator, one of five indicators detailed in the Index.

States and other political forces are playing a decreasing role in protecting press freedom. This disempowerment sometimes goes hand in hand with more hostile actions that undermine the role of journalists, or even instrumentalise the media through campaigns of harassment or disinformation.

The index covers 180 countries. Nordic and northern European countries top the list. Australia comes in at an unimpressive 39th place, well behind other large English-speaking countries – Canada (#14), New Zealand (#19), and the UK (#23), but ahead of the USA (#55). There has been a significant deterioration in our score and in our ranking, which has gone from #27 in 2023 to #39 this year.

Its report on Australia is summarized with the statement:

Press freedom is not constitutionally guaranteed in this island-continent of 26 million people, but a hyperconcentration of the media combined with growing pressure from the authorities endanger public interest journalism.

Besides media concentration, its main concerns abut Australia are about “a growing culture of secrecy within the administration, informal pressure to prevent the revelation of certain matters, and intimidation of whistleblowers in the name of protecting national security”. It is also concerned by the government’s adoption of “several problematic laws” on espionage and data encryption, and provisions that violate the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.

Some of the report’s criticisms about Australia relate to practices of the previous government. Australians may have expected a Labor government, with a tradition of defending civil liberties, to have pushed reform in these areas, but the government has not softened. The ABC’s Adele Ferguson points out that many people expected that the National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation would include whistleblower protection, but it did not, and the government seems to have lost enthusiasm for reforming the Public Interest Disclosure Act: Australians have had a gutful of corruption, but will the latest promises of whistleblower reform be enough?

Its poor grade for the USA is surprising, in view of that country’s freedoms specified in the Constitution’s First Amendment, and its federal dispersion of government power. But within that lightly-regulated environment have arisen media outlets that “prioritize profits over public interest journalism” and partisan media, and “public confidence in the media has fallen dangerously”.

Perceptions of crime – we all feel fairly safe really

The most recent Essential Report has six questions on people’s concern with crime and their attitudes to public policy to deal with crime.

Respondents are asked how safe they feel in different areas – in the workplace, at home, in the community and online. We generally feel very safe, particularly in our workplaces and at home (more than 85 percent responding “very safe or quite safe), a little less in the community (79 percent) and less online (65 percent). There is little difference between men and woman and between young and older people.

These are high figures, particularly for a survey taken just after the Bondi killings and the rallies about women’s safety.

We have different concerns for different types of crime. Seven categories are listed. “Youth crime” tops our concerns (85 percent) ranging down to “terrorism” (67 percent). In all categories, particularly “family violence” and “gender-based crime” women are more concerned than men, and older people are more concerned than younger people.

There has been a great deal of media attention on youth crime, and there is some evidence that the rate of youth crime has risen in the past year.

Asked which is the better way to reduce crime – prevention or enforcement – 59 percent choose enforcement while 41 percent choose prevention. (The statements offered to participants are “Focus on enforcement measures such as investing in police powers and harsher punishments for those who commit crimes”, and “Focus on preventative measures such as investing in social services and programs for at risk individuals”.) Older respondents strongly prefer enforcement. There is little difference according to voting intention, apart from a strong preference for prevention among Greens voters.

Respondents are asked which preventative measures they believe to be effective in reducing crime. The statements “Increase access to programs to intervene with at-risk or disadvantaged young people”, “Invest in the mental health system and drug rehabilitation programs”, and “Provide access to affordable housing and social services to address underlying causes of crime” all score more than 70 percent support. Women rate these programs more positively than men, and younger people rate them more positively than older people.

A similar approach is taken in asking respondents which enforcement measures they believe to be effective in reducing crime. “Increase the presence of police officers in high-risk crime areas”, “Stricter laws, and harsher penalties for those who commit crimes”, and “Stronger police powers to deal with those who commit crimes” all meet with more than 75 percent approval. Older people have more faith in enforcement than younger people, but there is no significant difference relating to people’s voting intention.

There is a set of six propositions relating specifically to family violence, with six statements. The statements and percentage agreeing are:

Unsurprisingly women have even stronger support for these measures than men. But surprisingly younger people have less support than older people. Green voters stand out as strongly in support for all measures, particularly the last on gender equality (84 percent).

Besides these questions on crime Essential has two others on online safety. The first lists four possible measures to improve online safety: “Make it illegal to post sexualised ‘deep fake’ images” (80 percent support); “Enforce age verifications for pornography and gambling sites” (80 percent); “Enforce age verification on social media” (77 percent); “Increase capacity for law-enforcement to scrutinise online behaviour” (75 percent). Women and older people are much more supportive of these propositions than men and younger people. There is discernible partisan difference: Coalition supporters are significantly stronger in support of these measures than Labor, Greens and “other” voters. This goes against the perception that there is a libertarian streak in the Liberal Party. It may also explain why they are not pushing “free speech” as strongly as might be expected from a party on the right.

The other question asks whether we support our e-Safety Commissioner or Elon Musk to regulate dangerous content. We go 70:30 for our e-Safety Commissioner – women and older people even more so.

Immigration and crime

As pointed out in the roundup of 20 April, Australia is one of the safest countries in the world in terms of the risk of violent crime.

Even in the safest societies, with the help of media who can always find enough grisly news stories to keep us engaged, right-wing politicians seek to elevate people’s fear of crime in order to sustain a law’n’order campaign, because it’s obvious, isn’t it, that left-wing governments are soft on crime.

Political pundits were expecting that the arrival of a few people in boats on our northwest shore, and the High Court’s direction to release 149 immigration detainees from detention would have unleashed such a campaign. Dutton and Ley tried to run such campaigns in the lead up to by-elections, but those campaigns failed to gain traction.

Maybe the problem for the Coalition is that Australians actually realize they’re reasonably safe from violent crime. (See the above post on perceptions of crime in this section.)

Patricia Karvelas draws attention to the political consequences of a violent home invasion allegedly by a former immigration detainee, one of those 149 released on the High Court’s order: Fumbling an immigration and law-and-order issue revealed vulnerability that could snowball into bigger problem for the government.

Those who understand the separation of powers won’t blame the government, but even those who don’t understand the separation of powers (probably the majority) tend to see administrative stuff-ups as a normal fault of government.

That is not to let the government off the hook. The government, fearing a scare campaign, tried to rush legislation to deport non-citizens, legislation that included a minister’s ability to arbitrarily reverse a person’s protection visa, and to refuse entry to Australia from almost all citizens of certain countries. It’s been quite an achievement for a Labor government to raise the ire of Amnesty International, asylum-seekers’ movements,liberally-minded independent MPs, the Greens, legal academics, and its own senators on the Scrutiny of Bills Committee.

It is refreshing to hear Shadow Home Affairs Minister James Paterson on ABC radio criticizing the government’s bill for its harshness and violation of rights, particularly its proposal to give the minister the power to close our borders to people from selected countries. (8 minutes)

It would be healthy for our democracy, and would help repair some of the terrible damage inflicted by Dutton in his anti-Voice campaign, if other members of the opposition could follow Paterson’s example, mounting reasoned criticism of the government on the basis of its policies, rather than engaging in scare campaigns of disinformation, telling lies, and exploiting the public’s poor understanding of economics and finance.

Rex Patrick on sausages and laws

Je weniger die Leute davon wissen, wie Würste und Gesetze gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie Nachts.

Probably a graph

Sausage factory

“The less the people know how sausages and laws are made, the better do they sleep at night.”

The origin of that statement is uncertain. Some attribute it to Bismarck, but it could apply to any “Westminster”- style democracy, where the power to enact legislation is effectively held by executive government rather than by parliament.

Former South Australian Senator Rex Patrick, writing in Michael West MediaSecret Treasury advice. Neither frank nor fearless but dishonest and fearful – describes the way important policies are developed. His article is specifically about Treasury’s secrecy around the Stage 3 tax cuts, but it describes a process that would be familiar to anyone who has worked in or with the Commonwealth public service.

Public servants’ salaries and operating expenses are authorized by Parliament, but by convention the public service deals only with ministers. When an elected member of Parliament asks to see what advice the public service is providing to ministers, senior public servants offer feeble excuses for refusing the request.

That process was unchallenged in times past when governments had clear majorities in the House of Representatives and a compliant Senate. Those days are long past, but the conventions live on past their use-by date. Patrick believes this secret way of developing policies, which treats Parliament and therefore the public with contempt, is one reason people have lost trust in government.

In this regard it is notable that the present government has set up bodies of advice such as the National Housing Supply and Affordability Council and the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee, and continues to receive advice from the Productivity Commission. Maybe the government itself is aware of the problem.