Australia 'world's most secretive democracy' says New York Times

June 13, 2019

"Australia may be the world's most secretive democracy," the New York Times reported on June 5.

The US newspaper was commenting on the raids by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on a NewsCorp journalist and then the head office of the ABC. They were looking for evidence of information provided by whistleblowers that was used in articles exposing possible crimes by the Australian military and other authorities.

NYT continued: "The aggressive approach — which Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended — fits with a global trend. Democracies from the United States to the Philippines are increasingly targeting journalists to ferret out leaks, silence critics and punish information sharing — with President [Donald] Trump leading the verbal charge by calling journalists 'the enemy of the people'.

"But even among its peers, Australia stands out. No other developed democracy holds as tight to its secrets, experts say, and the raids are just the latest example of how far the country's conservative government will go to scare officials and reporters into submission.”

NYT also quoted Johan Lidberg, an Associate Professor of Journalism at Monash University, who works with the United Nations on global press freedom, as saying: “To be perfectly frank, this is an absolute international embarrassment. You've got a mature liberal democracy that pursues and hunts down whistleblowers and tries to kill the messenger."

It is most revealing that Australia is being grouped here as a "democracy" with the Philippines under the increasingly repressive regime of President Rodrigo Duterte. The recent AFP raids on media organisations emphasise that the very category "democracy" is extremely limited and distorted under capitalist society.

The limitations of electoral democracy under capitalism have not changed since Karl Marx wrote 150 years ago: "The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them."

The existence of a "free press" is generally regarded as an essential feature of democracy under capitalism. But in a big business-dominated society, such as Australia or the US, the mainstream media is overwhelmingly owned and controlled by big corporations, which reflect the interests of different sectors of the ruling class.

As the crisis of capitalism deepens, attacks on press freedom escalate, even within the limited operation of mainstream media under "liberal democracy". As NYT noted, even among advanced capitalist countries, Australia has a very restricted media landscape.

First, it has one of the most concentrated media ownerships in the world, with only a few press barons operating the vast majority of media outlets, in addition to a resource-starved public sector in the ABC and SBS.

Secondly, compared with other developed "democratic" countries, Australia has no Bill of Rights, such as in the US, or other constitutional protections for freedom of speech and of the press. This means there is no legal right of the media to report on secret government operations, nor of whistleblowers to transmit secrets to the media in the public interest.

Thirdly, as University of New South Wales law professor George Williams has emphasised, the AFP's recent raids on the ABC and a NewsCorp journalist are the culmination of 20 years of increasingly repressive "national security" legislation, which both major parties have supported in the wake of 9/11 and the world-wide paranoia about "terrorism."

This international trend towards suppressing media freedom, particularly revelations of government crimes and corruption, has been spearheaded by the US government's unrelenting attempts to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from Britain to face espionage charges over the release of files showing US war crimes in Iraq and elsewhere.

In Australia, we have seen the prosecution of Bernard Collaery and Witness K over revelations about the government's bugging of the East Timorese cabinet room during negotiations over oil and gas rights in the Timor Sea, and the Australian Tax Office's pursuit of charges against whistleblower Richard Boyle, who is facing a possible 161 years in jail.

All this is part of a disturbing world-wide trend of governments assaulting democratic rights and freedoms to hide their crimes and maintain their power at any cost.

While mainstream media organisations have protested loudly at attacks on their own right to publish in Australia, Green Left Weekly has been consistently defending the rights of Julian Assange and other whistleblowers, as well as other sections of society whose rights and freedoms have been under assault for years.

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