Australia has a global reputation for being a sunny, relaxed democracy with a prosperous economy (and good coffee). But another facet of the country emerged this week after the federal police strode into the offices of the country’s public broadcaster with a broad search warrant for information related to a story about possible war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan.
The message to the world? This is also a country with a deep preference for government secrecy.
In fact, when you look at Australia’s laws and its range of investigations targeted at whistleblowers, there’s a strong case to be made that this is the world’s most secretive democracy — as Damien Cave wrote this week.
What’s interesting is that the government’s efforts have created both international outrage, and something that’s pretty rare in Australian media: a sense of unity.
Perhaps because the raid at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation came just a day after a raid on the home of a News Corp journalist who wrote about a government plan to increase surveillance, the partisan rivalries that usually divide the media here gave way to a broader sense of collective outrage.
The question for many now is how the Australian public will react to the erosion of press freedom and the targeting of whistleblowers.
Which is why we’re asking you: Do you think the government went too far in seizing records and documents from journalists? Is Australia too secretive? And if it is, what do you think could be done to diminish the widely accepted lack of transparency?
We also encourage you to ask questions if you have them, about secrecy, the media and Australia’s approach to transparency. Here’s an answer to one recent question from a reader in our Facebook group.
“If a New York based newspaper had broken the news, how successful would the Australian Federal Police be in getting their warrants? Does the ABC need to move its headquarters offshore to protect their independence? Does the New York Times have a cubicle or two to spare in the interests of a free press?”
Our offices here are on Australian soil, meaning we are as subject to Australian search warrants as local media outlets. But the raids have actually led us to consider whether we need a plan for moving sensitive materials and correspondence to New York to avoid the Australian arm of the law.
At a time when the media is under siege all over the world, and when governments are determined to punish those who share information that is embarrassing to politicians and officials, the raids are also a reminder of something that David Barstow, one of our most celebrated investigative journalists, often tells new reporters at The Times: You’re never safe and you have a responsibility to protect your sources.
One solution he suggests: Destroy your notes and wipe your own records clean; it’s the only way to make sure the government never exploits what we do for its own ends.
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…. And Over To You
In last week’s newsletter, I visited a gallery of Chinese contemporary art in Sydney and wrote about how I found its human focus compelling. Some of you argued that its impossible to divorce art and politics.
“Most of what you describe in the exhibition seems exceptionally political to me, especially considering the image of political fear that China radiates to Australians. Is there a reason we should not ‘package’ art as a fundamentally political discourse? Does promoting difficult (political) art as an awareness-raising exercise (helping us build empathy) provide a more palatable way to consume art today?
I profess to be slightly disappointed in the dilution of the politics of art that the media often portrays through their inclusive style. I’m reminded of the way that the avant-garde has been treated to general eye-rolling in the past, but is now lapped up by the masses as the latest trendy form of oppositionality. Is it the agenda of the media to get bums on seats in a gallery, or to report on a political movement that is realized through art for what it actually is – a political movement?””
– Emma Dallamora
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