Defamation claims and suppression orders are crippling Australian journalism, claims MEAA

Defamation claims, court suppression orders, and national security laws are resulting in a lack of transparency, and hindering press freedom, according to a survey run by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

The release of the survey results coincides with World Press Freedom Day, and mirror observations from this year’s World Press Freedom Index, which saw Australia fall in the global rankings.

MEAA’s chief executive Paul Murphy

This is the second year MEAA has run the survey, which this year saw 1,532 members of the public respond, a quarter of which identified as a journalist or media professional.

70.3% of all respondents labelled the health of Australian press freedom as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’, and 90.9% said press freedom has worsened in the past decade.

Zooming in on the responses of journalists, 80% said national defamation laws make reporting difficult, with 10% experiencing some kind of defamation action against them in the past two years. 28% claimed they had a story scrapped because of fears of defamation action in the past year. In that time, defamation cases have been on foot involving high profile names such as Geoffrey Rush (whose damages hearing is set to take place next week), Craig McLachlan, and Emma Husar.

“Australia’s defamation laws are among the most onerous in the western world and journalists in Australia are bound by restrictions which are inexplicable to those in other countries, where free speech protections are designed to enforce the public’s right to know,” said MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy.

Court suppression orders are also unsurprisingly a growing concern for journalists, in the wake of 36 journalists and publications being accused of breaching suppression orders in the George Pell trial.

Just under one quarter of journalist respondents said they work had been impacted by a suppression order in the past year, with 56% of this group saying they believed the court’s orders were excessive. Overall, more than half of journalists said they think judges are actively discouraging reporting of open courts and becoming more aggressive towards media reporting.

“Urgent reform is needed to both defamation laws and the suppression order regime to bring them up to date for the 21st century,” Murphy said.

“Suppression orders are being applied excessively and in any event are not fit for purpose in an environment of borderless digital publishing.

“Along with the chilling effect of national security laws, it means that Australians are often being kept in the dark about matters of significant public interest.”

Notably, almost a quarter of all survey respondents (journalists and the general public alike) said public broadcasting is their biggest concern, followed by a lack of diversity in media ownership (15.9%) and government secrecy (13.6%).

“Clearly, media consumers are worried that the significant cuts to the funding of the ABC and SBS over the past half-a-decade has had an impact on press freedom, while the takeover of Fairfax Media by Nine Entertainment has lessened media diversity in Australia,” said Murphy.


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