MEAA calls for uniform shield laws to protect journalists

MEAA1The union representing journalists has called for government to introduce a uniform national approach to shield laws for journalists, that would better allow them to protect their sources.

The demand, by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, comes as many of Australia’s leading journalist are facing demands from various courts to provide information related to confidential sources used in their stories.

Among the affected journalists are Steve Pennells of the West Australian and Fairfax Media journalists Adele Ferguson, Richard Baker, Nick McKenzie, Paddy Manning and Philip Dorling. Pennells and Ferguson both face actions by Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart. Businesswoman Helen Liu has brought actions against Baker, McKenzie and Dorling. Baker and McKenzie also face separate proceedings brought by defendants in the Securency case involving the Reserve Bank.

“Right now, I am faced with every journalist’s most-feared nightmare: comply with a court order to hand over documents that I promised would be kept confidential, or face a jail sentence for contempt of court,” Ferguson said. 

“It is a situation forced on me by Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, who is also the major shareholder in the company I work for, Fairfax Media.”

The union is calling on the Standing Council on Law and Justice representing Attorneys General in the federal, state and territory governments to create uniform shield laws that would prevent courts from forcing journalists to reveal their sources.

Journalists can face up to two years in jail and criminal conviction if they are found guilty of contempt of court. As recently as 2007 Herald Sun journalists Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey were convicted of contempt of court for refusing to name the source of an expose the pair wrote on war veterans’ entitlements.

Many states have introduced shield laws however they often vary widely on many different matters and the extent of their coverage.

Fairfax’s Paddy Manning, who recently faced a subpoena from mining magnate Nathan Tinkler seeking confidential documents, said many readers did not understand the threat posed.

“I think it would be a great surprise to many working journalists and to the public at large that we cannot report confidential information in the public interest. Isn’t that our job?” said Manning.

Paul Murphy, director of media at the MEAA, said the wealthy should not be allowed to use the courts to attack journalists and their sources.

“The wealthy and powerful in Australia are increasingly using courts to prevent the public having access to information they have a right to know. No journalist should face criminal conviction for doing their job ethically and in the public interest. Such journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy,” said Murphy.

There is a petition re shield laws you can sign here.

Nic Christensen 


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