Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2017, 07:52 GMT

Reporters Without Borders Annual Report 2003 - Australia

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 2003
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Reporters Without Borders Annual Report 2003 - Australia, 2003, available at: [accessed 13 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The government tried to prevent the media freely reporting on the situation in the country's refugee camps. In New South Wales, a state supreme court decision threatened the confidentiality of sources.

The authorities erected a one-kilometre security fence around the refugee camp at the southern town of Woomera on 26 January 2002 where more than 300 asylum-seekers had gone on hunger strike. A few hours later, government security guards shouted at 30 or so journalists to leave the fence area within half an hour or face arrest. Natalie Larkins, an ABC Adelaide TV reporter, was arrested and taken to Woomera police station. She was accused of trespassing and freed on bail three hours later but was obliged to leave the town immediately.

The Australian media became increasingly critical during the year of what it called the government's "xenophobic" immigration policies and "dictatorial" practices. But immigration minister Philip Ruddock told ABC radio that the ban on journalists covering the hunger strike was "an operational decision" taken by civil protection services to "secure the safety of the detainees." He added: "What we restrict are journalists seeking access to asylum seekers, we don't in any way restrict detainees seeking access to journalists."

The Australian Press Council made access to the asylum-seekers the main item in its monthly newsletter in February, noting that the authorities were applying the same rules of barring the media from refugee camps at Port Hedland, Woomera, Villawood (Sydney), Maribyrnong (Melbourne), Nauru and other Pacific islands as they did at high-security prisons. It said the publicly-owned Australian Associated Press news agency had also been refused access to the Woomera camp. Official were letting some journalists into the camps if they promised in writing not to talk to the refugees.

The Press Council expressed alarm in February at a federal government proposal on media ownership that would set up an independent body to regulate broadcasting and newspapers. Council chairman Ken McKinnon said that "even seemingly innocuous powers given to government bodies like this can be elaborated over time to the detriment of the independence of the press. It's the thin end of the wedge."

The proposed law would see that different media owned by the same person had separate editorial operations. It would supersede a media monopoly law and allow foreign media interests to increase their stake in the country's media. Some independent media charged that the new law was drafted to suit media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

Also in February, Australian journalists' associations protested against proposed amendments to the criminal code that would criminalise some journalistic sources by making it an offence to send or receive "an official record of information or official information" itself. The government dropped the proposal in March.

The New South Wales state supreme court summoned Anne Lampe and Kate Askew, of the Sydney Morning Herald, and Belinda Tasker, of the Australian Associated Press, on 26 June to appear for questioning about their sources of information after receiving a complaint from the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA). A year earlier, the journalists had reported a power-struggle within the NRMA and financial advantages given to some of its senior figures. They faced prison sentences for contempt of court if they refused to reveal their sources.

Lampe told Reporters Without Borders that the head of the NRMA had been trying to silence the journalists for two years by sending "threatening legal letters," warning that advertising would be withdrawn and writing to all members of the newspaper's board. "Now they want to send us to jail," she said. The journalists appealed against the summons to appear. In the meantime, Lampe said, "we and our reporting of the issues are in limbo. If it works for NRMA, it will be a blueprint for the most effective way to gag journalists in Australia."

A journalist arrested

A court in the northern city of Darwin dismissed charges on 19 November against Paul Toohey, a reporter for the daily paper The Australian, for entering Aborigine lands without official permission. He had been arrested a week earlier in the Aborigine town of Port Keats, southwest of Darwin, while reporting on the funeral of an 18-year-old youth who had been killed by police. Toohey pleaded guilty, but the judge dismissed the case on grounds that it would undermine press freedom to proceed.

Journalists physically attacked

A crew from the public TV station SBS was attacked by a dozen men on 16 August while gathering the views of local and religious officials in Sydney's strongly-Lebanese suburb of Lakemba about a series of rapes by a local youth. Reporter Adrian Flood, cameraman Mick O'Brien and sound-man Andrew Smailes were hit and injured and the attackers fled. The incident occurred amid tension fed by politicians talking about gangs of "Lebanese rapists."

A mystery gunman fired four shots late at night at the Brisbane home of Hedley Thomas, of the daily Courier Mail, on 23 October, one of which barely missed his wife, Ruth Mathewson. Thomas had written what he called "delicate" articles about corruption among lawyers, illegal property deals and controversial drug treatments. In 2001, he had received a telephoned death threat. The paper offered a reward of 50,000 Australian dollars (about 28,000 euros) for information about the attackers. Thomas told Reporters Without Borders that he had been targeted as a journalist, not as a private individual.

Pressure and obstruction

Selliah Nagarajah, a Sri Lankan born journalist working for the public radio station SBS, said in late October he had received death threats from groups close to the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger separatists. Nagarajah, who came to Australia in 1998, had broadcast an editorial on 20 October about bomb attacks in Bali and mentioning that some Tamils in Australia considered the attackers were heroes. Tamil associations called on their members to write protest letters to SBS, calling for his dismissal. A Tamil radio station in Australia, Imbathamil Oli, broadcast four programmes attacking Nagarajah.

Prison authorities in New South Wales banned distribution in late December of the prisoners' magazine Framed, because it had carried criticism of prison administration chiefs in its February issue. The authorities said the magazine increased the danger of clashes between staff and prisoners. The quarterly magazine has been distributed in state prisons since the early 1990s.

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