The heightened determination to prevent terrorist attacks in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks found its way to Australia from the United States, with the government of the prime minister at the time, John Howard, passing increasingly invasive legislation, including a terrorism financing bill, a telecommunications interception bill, and an anti-hoax law that carried a 10-year imprisonment for offenders.
George Williams, the dean of law at the University of New South Wales, said that since 2002, successive Australian governments have passed more than 80 pieces of legislation, purportedly for national security reasons, that go far beyond those of other countries that have higher terrorist threat ratings.
And they go beyond freedom of the press, he said.
“There’s an even larger number of laws that go to the suppression of free speech,” he said. “It’s extended to doctors in overseas detention camps facing jail for talking about conditions there.”
As part of the campaign, known as #righttoknow, Australian news outlets have highlighted instances when their reporters were blocked from obtaining documents under Freedom of Information requests that bear little connection to national security matters.
The Daily Telegraph, a News Corp. tabloid, referenced stories on confidentiality clauses preventing the publishing of assaults against older patients in care facilities and suppression orders on the identity of sex offenders as examples of government secrecy that had become endemic.
It said its redacted front page was “a bleak warning of a future where laws continue to erode media freedom so governments can cover up information from the public.”
The #righttoknow coalition has six key demands at the heart of its campaign, including a review of Freedom of Information laws, the right to contest search warrants before they are issued, the overhaul of defamation laws and limits on what documents can be marked secret.