Kerry O'Brien and Peter Greste urges government to skip press freedom inquiry

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Last month, the Alliance for Journalists' Freedom released in Australia on white paper, which includes recommendations for a new Media Freedom Act, addressing press freedom in existing national security legislation, protecting journalists' confidential data and enhancing whistleblower protections.

Alliance for Journalists' Freedom director Peter Greste says he should set up a taskforce within weeks, rather than have an inquiry.

Alliance for Journalists' Freedom director Peter Greste says he should set up a taskforce within weeks, rather than have an inquiry. Credit:Fairfax Media

"We anticipated this," Greste said. "We've been thinking about this for a while."

Since the September 11, 2001, 75 sets of national security-related legislation have been passed in Australia. Media organizations are particularly concerned about the potential for journalists to be jailed for classified information publishing. Human rights advocates are also concerned about the prosecution of whistleblowers who make disclosures in the public interest.

O'Brien, who is the former host of the 7.30 Report and Four Corners and the current chair of the Walkley Foundation, said there was "real urgency" around press freedom.

"I personally think they shouldn't faff around with the inquiry," he said.

"If Scott Morrison is to be believed when he says he is committed to press freedom, he will move immediately to the top of the board with better legislation and stronger whistleblower protections."

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Labor is urging the government to support a parliamentary inquiry that reviews all national security legislation passed since 2013 (when the Coalition was elected). The ALP's home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, says a joint committee of both houses should be tasked with the job.

Last week she dismissed calls from some media organizations to bypass an inquiry on the basis of the issue was already well understood.

"What I would reflect is that this is an end to the inquiry," Senator Keneally told Sky News.

The government is considering the matter.

"Press freedom is a bedrock principle in democracy and we are still open to looking at itself, if we need to analyze that evidence," Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told Radio National last week.

O'Brien, who is scathing of the recent AFP raids on the home of News Corp. journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC offices in Sydney, said Australians should not take their democracy for granted.

"I have no doubt that those police raids are designed to intimidated journalists and they are designed to intimidate whistleblowers."

The six-time Walkley award winner said that he was "the ideal" but should be given to fixing existing legislation.

"I have little faith in Parliament's capacity to lead to responsible, thoughtful, debate on why we should have a bill of rights," O'Brien said.

As the debate continues over the national security powers in Australia, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was a close eye on the situation.

Asia researcher with the committee Aliya Iftikhar said the organization had already been alarmed "by what seems to be an increasing criminalization of journalism" in Australia.

"It's not just about the raids," Ms Iftikhar said. "We're certainly going to keep monitoring the country."

Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and Age, based at Parliament House

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