Bill of rights needed


Lawrence Gibbons

Ten years ago last month, the first edition of the City Hub hit the streets of Sydney. The headline on my first page three editorial read: "Toss a flag on the barbie".

I encouraged readers to burn Indonesian flags in defiance of the defence minister's proclamation that a law banning flag burning should be enacted in Australia. Then Labor minister Senator Robert Ray made his pronouncement after Australian citizens exercised their democratic right to free speech by protesting the old fashioned way. They burned Indonesian flags on Australian soil outside an Indonesian embassy to show their outrage at the Suharto government's immoral occupation of East Timor. A decade later and East Timor has a free and independent government, thanks in no small part to the very vocal demands of the Australian public and their elected representatives.

"Flags are simply symbols made of cloth", I inflamed. "And burning a flag is nothing more than a symbolic act, a form of speech which like all others ought to be protected ... It is imperative that an American-style Bill of Rights is imbedded into a new constitution. An implied right to free speech is in no way good enough. Not in Australia. We should know that when we have a go, we will not be criminally prosecuted by the Robert Rays of the world. We should be free to say what we think. And we will."

Ten years after the City Hub first dipped its toes into the unprotected, shallow, shark infested waters of Australian publishing, our island continent is crying out for a bill of rights louder than ever. A bill of rights that, to quote from the US constitution, protects "the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances".

Since winning a third term in office, the Howard government has introduced a raft of totalitarian style anti-terror laws that would engorge George W. Bush.

Since the last federal election, the government has sent the Australian Federal Police in to raid the offices of the National Indigenous Times to look for leaked cabinet papers; it has sent ASIO in to smash up the hard drives of experts retained to give advice to a publisher wishing to print a book by the spy-turned-Green Andrew Wilkie. And, in an act that would have gagged Deep Throat himself, it has threatened two Melbourne-based journalists with jail unless they reveal the names of their anonymous sources, thus threatening the media's ability to report and the public's right to know what its government is doing.

As all levels of government in Australia refuse to release any details to the press under limited freedom of information laws, how can the media inform the public? And, as the government seeks to punish journalists who obtain information from confidential, secret sources "off the record" how can the media do its job?

Without a bill of rights protecting a free press, the challenges involved in printing, producing and distributing alternative media content can prove daunting in the most controlled and monopolistic media market in the Western world.

Consider the challenges faced by the Green Left Weekly, whose supporters have sold their paper out on George Street, opposite Sydney Town Hall for years.

At the end of August, distributors of the paper were ordered to move on or face a $220 fine. A council spokesperson said: "The protestors had not obtained council approval for setting up the table and A frame, which is required under the Local Government Act. The table was viewed as a footway obstruction and the protestors were asked to pack up and obtain a permit from Council. They refused and they were warned that they were liable for a fine of $220 under the Local Government Act. They eventually complied with his request, packed up and moved on."

Council's actions follow fresh on the heels of a recent Sydney City Council decision to rush through approval for News Corp to lease the use of public sidewalks to distribute their new, free newspaper MX at a number of locations throughout the CBD for a staggering $362,000.

According to Marce Cameron from Green Left Weekly, "The symbolism is ominous. They threaten us with a fine for having an information stall, just as they prepare to sign off on a deal to give Rupert Murdoch privileged use of city streets. While we may be compelled to apply for a permit for now, we urge all supporters of free speech to demand that council not go ahead with the outrageous MX deal, and for council policy to uphold the basic democratic right of people to distribute printed material free of charge without a permit."

Ominously, a council spokesperson said that council's policies would require that the Green Left Weekly, which is distributed throughout the year, pay the same kind of per location fees as News Corp if they use the same location more than 40 times a year.

City of Sydney Greens Councillor Chris Harris has objected to Council's ill-conceived MX deal stating, "A Newspaper Distribution Agreement between this council and Nationwide News to allow the distribution of the free newspaper MX, raises serious concerns about freedom of speech and the valuable role of community media in a democratic city. A policy devised by council staff without consultation, especially when a figure of $362,000 a year in licence fees has been mentioned, naturally causes grave concerns among independent newspaper publishers, community and not-for-profit organisations and anyone concerned about free speech."

[Lawrence Gibbons is the editor of City Hub and has been active in the free speech campaign. This is an abridged version of the editorial in the September edition of City Hub.]

From Green Left Weekly, September 14, 2005.

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