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Australian media demands press freedom law reforms

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Australia’s three largest media organizations joined forces on Wednesday to demand press freedom law reforms that would prevent journalists from risking prison for doing their job.

News Corp. Australia, Australian Broadcasting Corp. and Nine Entertainment released their agreed demands for law reforms following police raids on consecutive days early this month at ABC’s Sydney headquarters and a News Corp. reporter’s Canberra home in search of leaked government documents.

The rival organizations want journalists to be exempt from national security laws passed since 2012 that “would put them in jail for doing their jobs.”

They also want a right to contest warrants such as those executed in Sydney and Canberra. Both the ABC and New Corp. this week lodged court challenges to both those warrants in a bid to have documents returned.

The organizations have called for greater legal protections for public sector whistleblowers as well as reforms to freedom of information and defamation laws.

ABC Managing Director David Anderson, News Corp. Australia Executive Chairman Michael Miller and Nine Chief Executive Hugh Marks addressed the National Press Club on Wednesday as part of a campaign to gain public support for reform.

“Clearly, we are at a crossroads. We can be a society that is secret and afraid to confront sometimes uncomfortable truths or we can protect those who courageously promote transparency, stand up to intimidation and shed light on those truths to the benefit of all citizens,” Anderson said.

Miller described the police raids that have united media organizations in their demand for change as “intimidation, not investigation.”

“But there is a deeper problem – the culture of secrecy,” Miller said. “Too many people who frame policy, write laws, control information and conduct court hearings have stopped believing that the public’s right to know comes first.”

Marks said “bad legislation on several fronts and probably overzealous officials … in the judiciary, in the bureaucracy and our security services have steadily eroded the freedoms under which we, the media, can operate.”

“Put simply, it’s more risky, it’s more expensive to do journalism that makes a real difference in this country than it ever has been before,” Marks said.

The demands come a week before Parliament resumes for the first time since the conservative government was elected for a third term on May 18.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not criticized the police raids, but has said he is open to suggestions for improvements to Australia’s laws.

Australia’s opposition party has called for a parliamentary committee to investigate whether the balance between press freedom and national security is right in legislation passed since the conservative government was first elected in 2013.

Australia is the outlier among its Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand in not having such oversight.

Experts say Australia went from having no counterterrorism laws before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. to having more than any other country in the world, with more than 60 new pieces of legislation and amendments.There had been no counterbalancing laws to uphold human rights or press freedom.

Australia doesn’t have enshrined rights like the U.S. First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

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