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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Australia's war on whistleblowers must end

Australia's war on whistleblowers must end

Australia's war on whistleblowers must end

prosecution of Freya Newman, court actions against news outlets and
police investigations of immigration leaks show the war on
whistleblowers is escalating

Frances Abbott, Tony Abbott and Leanne Whitehouse

Frances Abbott, Tony Abbott and Leanne Whitehouse
Photograph: Fairfax

Freedom is difficult to resuscitate once extinguished. Australian attorney-general George Brandis recently chastised
journalists for criticising his government’s new laws aimed at
preventing reporting about “special intelligence operations”. Because
he’s a culture warrior brawler, Brandis damned the “usual suspects of
the paranoid, fantasist left” but also “reputable conservative
commentators” for questioning his judgment over what citizens should and
should not learn through the media.

It’s a tragic irony that the loudest voices backing the current war
on whistle-blowers are the very politicians who are theoretically
elected to protect and enhance free speech and disclosure.

“Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” was a favourite
expression of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, father of the
British reporter Patrick Cockburn. It’s a motto worth remembering as we’re faced with a barrage of state-led and private interest attacks on leaks and leakers.

The examples are many, but what occurred on Thursday raises grave
concerns for whistleblowers in Australia. Take the case of Freya Newman,
a young and part-time librarian at Whitehouse School of Design in
Sydney. She accessed information on the institute’s computer system that
showed prime minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, received a
“chairman’s scholarship” worth $60,000.

Newman has pleaded guilty to the offence of unauthorised access to a
computer system, and on Thursday appeared in court. The prosecution
appeared not to be pushing for a jail sentence but a record of the
crime. The fact remains that Newman has been aggressively pursued for a
noble example of exposing a matter of public interest.

Newman’s whistleblowing was defended
by lawyer Julian Burnside as vital insights into secret access and
clearly should be designated as in the public interest. Crucially, he
notes that she would have been likely protected by whistleblower
protection if working for a government organisation but she was exposed
to legal censure because she was employed by a private organisation.

Independent news website New Matilda
has released a slew of leaks this year and faced heavy, but predictable
criticism. New Matilda operates differently, aiming to piss off the
pompously positioned. The current controversy over Sydney University’s
Barry Spurr, a consultant to the Abbott government’s review of the
national curriculum, is yet another case of smearing a whistle-blower
who released a slew of racist and sexist emails to New Matilda.

In an outrageous attack on press freedom, Spurr has tried to legally force New Matilda to reveal its sources
and prevent them publishing anything else related to the story. It’s a
case of attempted intimidation that New Matilda has happily challenged,
and later on Thursday Spurr dropped his bid to expose the source, although the case is still continuing. I’m yet to read other media outlets offering support for the small publisher.

Rather than address the issues raised by Spurr’s compromised position
as a man who longs for colonial times, The Australian’s Sharri Markson reported that the emails may have been obtained by hacking, allegations slammed by editor Chris Graham.

The source of the leak is again questioned
in an Australian editorial: “the [New Matilda] website maintains [the
story] is based on leaks from a source, rather than hacking, as
Professor Spurr alleges”. Even entertainer Barry Humphries has damned the release of the emails, wilfully ignoring the political significance of such a man with vile views to perpetuate white Australia in the education system of the 21st century.

There are many other examples of this war on whistleblowers in Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison has maintained a medieval seal on details
over his border security policy and yet has been happy to find
friendly, News Corp Australia reporters to smear critics of his policy.
The government has now referred Save the Children workers
to be investigated by the Australian Federal Police over “unauthorised”
disclosures of information. It was clear intimidation, designed to make
employees shut up.

In a haze of claims and counter-claims, with Operation Sovereign Borders celebrated
as saving taxpayer dollars, the detail of a breach of security within
the department is ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The source of
these allegations against Save the Children was first reported in a Daily Telegraph story
as being from an intelligence report that they also appear to have been
leaked, and which was published on the day of Morrison’s announcement
about the investigation. Leaking to obedient journalists doesn’t
indicate a healthy whistle-blower culture but rather a docile political
environment that rewards favouritism. It reduces democracy to sanctioned
drops into reporter’s in-boxes.

Amidst all the fury over angry ideologues concerned that their
bigoted conservative values are under attack lie the importance of
whistle-blowing without fear or favour. It’s a global problem that’s
being led by Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, US president Barack
Obama. His administration is publicly supportive of disclosure while
prosecuting countless people including the New York Times’ James Risen and perfecting the selective leak to cosy reporters. It’s a particular problem with national security journalism, where the vast bulk of writing is left to stenographers of the bloated intelligence and military apparatus.

Effective whistleblower legislation in democracies isn’t enough
because governments have proven their willingness to protect anything
that embarrasses or shames them. The persecution of Julian Assange,
Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake, amongst others, is
about saving face and not lives. Journalists, aggressive media companies
and citizens must revolt and challenge the very fundamentals of our
secretive age. This means publishing state and business secrets and
widening the overly narrow definition of what constitutes being in the
public interest.

Rejecting the criminalising of journalism should be in every reporter’s DNA. The Snowden releases have fundamentally altered
the ways in which we understand digital journalism and how we must
protect sources away from prying private and government eyes.

Over a year ago I wrote
an article outlining the range of documents and stories that need to be
told by the invaluable work of whistle-blowers. Today I’m calling for
all documents that reveal the operational details of Operation Sovereign
Borders, the legal justification for providing Iraqi immunity for
Australian special forces in Iraq and the evidence of Australian
acquiescence in abandoning citizen Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian