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Australia – (C2) Independence of the news media from power holders

Score in short:

Legal instruments to guarantee greater independence from power holders have only just become law. However, defamation law is used as another pathways by the rich and powerful to silence critics.

Score in detail:

The Australian federal parliament’s upper house, the Senate, in March 2011 passed the shield law legislation which permits journalists to protect their sources. This is a big step towards journalists being able to guarantee confidentiality to their sources. However, the same law does not yet exist on a state level in some of the Australian states.

The public broadcaster ABC, since 1973, is funded entirely by the Australian government with relatively short funding cycles, and is therefore in a position of dependency. It is a similar scenario for the Special Broadcast Service, though it derives 20 % of its revenue from advertising. With both public broadcasters, the selection procedure for their boards is not independent from government.

Defamation law is seen as another means used by the rich and powerful to deter criticisms. Although the law, which tends to follow english law on defamation issues, is designed to protect people’s reputations from unfair attack, it can also be used to protect powerful people from scrutiny. In particular politicians and wealthy individuals have been known to serve writs quickly when they see unfavourable comment about themselves in the media. Defamation action is very costly and can only be pursued by those with sufficient funds, thus hardly benefitting the ordinary citizen. The 2005 reforms restricted companies from suing for defamation, and established truth as an unqualified defence (Australian Press Council 2010b).