AAP closure and AFP raids see Australia slide in World Press Freedom Index

‘Investigative journalism is in danger’ in Australia according to the World Press Freedom Index.

The 2020 report from Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres) put Australia in 26th place – a five-spot drop from 2019, largely based on last year’s Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids and the closure of the AAP newswire.

“In 2019, Australian journalists became more aware than ever of the fragility of press freedom in their country, whose constitutional law contains no press freedom guarantees and recognizes no more than an ‘implied freedom of political communication’,” read the report accompanying the data.

Australia has slid five places on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index [click to enlarge]

The raids on the home of News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC’s head offices in Sydney were ‘flagrant violations of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and public interest journalism’ according to Reporters Without Borders.

Smethurst has since had a win in the High Court over the raids, with the warrant used by the AFP thrown out. However, she is yet to have the data taken in the raid returned to her and she still faces the possibility of jail time.

The defamation law passed in 2018 and the 75 national security laws which have been brought in since 9/11 were also named in the report as concerns, noting they make reporting on terrorism ‘almost impossible’.

“Prime Minister Scott Morrison is also a climate change sceptic and his government tends to obstruct coverage of environmental issues,” read the report.

One of the big concerns was the concentration of media ownership in Australia. The report referred to Nine and News Corp as ‘two media giants’ who now own the majority of privately-owned media. In these businesses the focus is on cost-cutting and profits, not investigative journalism, argued the report.

“The situation became even worse in early 2020 when the Australian Associated Press (AAP), the country’s only national news agency, ceased operating after 85 years because it was deemed insufficiently profitable by its two main shareholders, News Corp and Nine Entertainment.”

News Corp has since announced the launch of its own news wire service and said it will strive to hire as many AAP staff as possible.

A statement from Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus QC MP and Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland MP called the slide ‘worrying’ and said it highlighted the obvious concerns in Australia’s media landscape.

“Despite a High Court ruling that the raid on the home of journalist Annika Smethurst was unlawful, the Government continues to refuse to rule out the prosecution of journalists Annika Smethurst, Dan Oakes and Sam Clark,” read the statement.

“Australia’s worrying slide down the World Press Freedom Index underscores the need for action by the Government on law reform to support media diversity, support press freedom and address the concerns of Australia’s Right to Know coalition and civil society organisations.

“Unlike the Morrison Government, Labor believes in freedom of the press and the public’s right to know.”

Australia’s media freedom concerns are only compounding with a number of independent regional titles closing due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has called on the government to provide more help and save the future of independent media in Australia.


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