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Australian Freedom of Speech and sedition laws

Australian Freedom of Speech and the induction of sedition laws

By Syed Atiq ul Hassan, Sydney Australia

Post 9/11 (2001) waves of terror involved the wrongly induced ideas of aggression and revenge or so called Jihad by those fanatics who are being targeted through ongoing military operations by US-allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Australia’s practical involvement in these operations with US and UK where Muslims are the recipient of most of the misunderstood concepts and exploitations has put Australia in spotlight among the Islamic extremists. Now if there are groups or individuals, in Australia, supposedly connected to those foreign elements and are considered as a danger of subversive activities then what is required the most is that the media should work more closely with those elements and provide them an opportunity to speak in public.

One should not forget that freedom of speech is the foundation of all humanity and without it politics becomes impossible. Unless we are able to hear and understand the views of our political adversaries, we cannot hope to turn their minds and convince them that they are wrong or even to change our own behaviour to accommodate opposing views that may turn out to be right.

Media has its own strength of creating public opinion and to change public perception on critical issues. Media plays an important role in understanding complex issues on national and international politics. Today, the role of journalists, writers and publishers has become globally important and challenging. The wrong and misconceived ideologies are vastly required to be corrected from the peoples’ mind. This is the time when writers, intellectuals and media analysts should expose the critical issues into public to eradicate curiosity and uncertainty from minds of the public. But this can only be possible if we have an absolute freedom of speech.

Conversely, if extremism and misconceived thoughts are criminalized by introducing sedition laws and the freedom of speech is suppressed by the state power then there will be a great danger that these activities and their operators will go underground which would suit to them to expose themselves as being the victims of the state. The example of Osama Bin Ladin and his network is there to understand this phenomenon.

Since the abolition of White Australia policy in early 1970s, Australia has gained a remarkable status, globally, as being a free and democratic society, open for every one. In this process the media has played a vital role. Australia will continue to enjoy this reputation as long as its democratic value would be kept intact.

It is hard to digest that in Australia, a country which is based on tolerance and mutual respect and whose identity is its multiculturalism one would appreciate or support terrorism and the people would appreciate the laws which would harm the social freedom and democracy of Australians. Mentally ill and people of wrongly conceived ideas on the name of faith and belief are found in every society. Certainly there are already adequate rules and supremacy of law and order in Australia to deal with any act of violence or terrorism. Therefore, one would not imagine that the people of Australia indiscriminately would like to see the imposition of sedition laws and severity which could change the face of Australia internationally.

If the governments in Europe and US are implementing stiffer laws and restrictions to deal with their situation then those might be their political or administrative requirements. On 22nd July 2005, a Brazilian national Charles de Menezes was surveilled as he left his home, followed by security forces to a train station. As he entered the station he was apprehended by police squad, one of whom pined down his arms while another fired seven bullets into his head. – the action was described by politicians and police in London as a ‘tragic mistake’. The people cannot afford to have these kinds of incidents in Australia.

Certainly, this is the responsibility of the state to protect its institutions and public assets from violent behaviour and act of terrorism. However, in doing so, the methods and procedures should not criminalize the speech of the people and should not suppress the basic human rights and democratic values. Journalists’right to freedom of expression and Public’s right to know the truth are the basic pillars of freedom of speech and democracy. Confidentiality of the source of information is the prime factor in journalistic tasks and duties.

The anti-terror laws proposed by the Australian Federal and State governments will directly harm the press freedom in Australia. For example; lets take the power of ‘notice to produce’ for the Australian Federal Police that will be used to demand any information, including the identity of the confidential sources and material. This will definitely encourage the sources not to speak with the media with confidence. Consequently, it would directly affect the journalists in their investigation and fact-finding processes. Eventually, the public will be significantly less informed and the watchdog role of journalism will be diminished.

According to the control orders in these proposed lageslation , a person who has not actually committed a criminal act could be detained for up to 12 months and may face the following impositions:

- Restricting or prohibiting from going to a particular place and/or
- Requiring remain in a particular place at a particular time and/or day;
- Prohibiting from leaving Australia;
- Prohibiting from contacting or communicating with a particular person/s;
- Prohibiting from working in particular jobs or carrying out specific activities, and/or possessing or using otherwise lawful items or substances;
- Requiring to wear a tracking device; and/or
- Prohibiting the use of telephones, internet and other like technologies.

Under the proposed laws a person and his or her lawyer are denied access to the underlying information for the order being placed on them in the first place. These restrictions hinder the ability of a court to meaningfully review whether the orders have been validly used and further compound the potential violation of a person’s liberty under the laws. A person can be detained if the Australian Federal Police (AFP) suspect that that person will engage in a terrorist act, possesses a thing that is connected with a terrorist act, or if the person has done, or will do, an act in preparation for a terrorist act. The terrorist act must be imminent, and expected to occur in the next 14 days or have occurred in the last 28 days.

Prime Minister John Howard still insisted that the new anti-terror laws were not intended to hamper freedom of speech and these laws would not stop journalists attacking government and cartoonists lampooning politicians. But these are not the only areas journalists, writers and publishers are needed to express their work completely.

According to these proposed laws, journalists who report a suspected terrorist can be detained by police and could be jailed for five years. Police would also have the power to detain journalists if it is deemed necessary in order to “preserve” evidence relating to a terrorist attack. Journalists would have no right to protect confidential sources and the police could raid newsrooms and seize documents for their investigation process.

The former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has urged Prime Minister Howard to abandon the Government on its terror laws. The Liberal veteran called the Liberal Party as a party of fear and reaction. He said he was considering his resignation from the party over the Government's stance on anti-terror laws, currently before the Senate.

Former Chief Justice of the High Court Sir Anthony Mason commenting on these proposed laws said “neither ASIO nor the Attorney General is a suitable guardian of individual rights”. Amnesty International, Australia, also expressed its concern while acknowledging the duty of governments to keep their citizens safe but not at the expense of fundamental freedoms and basic human rights.

According to many observers and analysts, the communities at risk from these sedition laws would be the Australian Muslim community, the anti-globalisation and anti-war protest movements and the freelance journalists and ethnic media who already have no strong voice in the mainstream. The operations and actions under these sedition laws would eventually damage the image of Australian freedom of speech, internationally.

*************

(The Writer, Syed Atiq ul Hassan, is senior journalist, writer, media analyst and foreign correspondent for foreign media agencies in Australia – the article is the print version of his speech as a guest speaker at New South Wales Writers’ Forum on ‘Impact of anti-terror laws on journalists and writers held on 29th of November 2005 at NSW Writers’ Centre, Sydney. His e-mail is shassan@tribune-intl.com).

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