Australia slumps in world press freedom rankings (again)

Heavy media concentration and continuing media cutbacks have driven Australia to its lowest score ever in the World Press Freedom Index, run by international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

Once a top-20 country in the index, Australia managed 39th in 2023, according to the latest version of the index, with its overall score of 73.42 being its lowest ever. That places us below countries such as the Dominican Republic, Namibia and Jamaica.

The RWB methodology is subject to sudden lurches — Australia was 39th in 2021 (with a score of 73.77), recovered to 27th in 2022 but is now back down again. According to RWB, “hyperconcentration” of media ownership has long been a key impediment, but “the problem has been made worse by mergers and acquisitions of the largest media organisations. Newsrooms have suffered in recent years from the negative effects of digital transformation, cost reductions and layoffs.”

RWB notes Australian journalists don’t fear violence or arbitrary detention, but “still feel threatened by other possibilities such as defamation suits, contempt of court charges, attacks on social media, or loss of employment as a result of government or corporate interference”.

In 2023, the ABC cut short a radio stint by Antoinette Lattouf for posting a link to a Human Rights Watch report on Gaza that was covered by the broadcaster, while journalists who signed an open letter calling for balance in coverage of the Israel-Hamas conflict were censored by Nine’s Fairfax papers, and criticised by other outlets. Elsewhere, Seven Network employed a war criminal, Ben Roberts-Smith, who tried to sue the Nine newspapers for defamation for exposing his crimes before losing his case last year (it is currently under appeal).

The latest RWB report also notes “at the federal level, the Canberra Parliament has also adopted several problematic laws since the end of the 2010s. Those on national security, espionage and data encryption, in particular, contain provisions authorising officials to violate the confidentiality of journalists’ sources”.

Since Labor returned to power, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has launched one round of reforms to the whistleblower protection laws he put in place when previously attorney-general under Julia Gillard, and is preparing another round, as well as halted the political persecution by the Coalition of Bernard Collaery over the Howard government’s spying on Timor-Leste (another country that ranks above Australia in press freedom).

However, the government is also pursuing so-called “anti-doxxing” laws after pro-Palestine activists exposed the names of a Whatsapp group that the activists claimed conducted a campaign of vilification against them, while two senior security bureaucrats recently used the Wakeley knife attack to renew demands for an end to encrypted communication apps. The mainstream media has also campaigned against free speech on social media and pushed for online censorship.

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