State Government’s war on free speech
State Government’s war on free speech

Palaszczuk Government’s war on free speech

Journalists will be jailed for six months or fined thousands of dollars for telling Queenslanders whether the candidates they're voting for in the October state election face corruption allegations.

In a shock move condemned as an attack on democracy, free speech and the people's right to know, the Palaszczuk government has introduced laws gagging the fourth estate from reporting on complaints or allegations made to the corruption watchdog during election periods.

However, candidates won't face the same steep penalties as journalists, with Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath confirming they could tell constituents about Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) allegations, while newspaper, radio and television reporters could not.

News organisations, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), right-to-know campaigners and the LNP Opposition universally criticised the move last night.

The laws will cover the caretaker period of a state or local government election, after writs are issued, and carry a six-month jail term or $6672 fine.

Journalists will only be able to report on such allegations if they give the CCC three-months' notice that they intend to do so, which Ms D'Ath said was enough time for the corruption watchdog to decide whether a complaint had merit.

Attorney-General of Queensland Yvette D'ath. Picture: Liam Kidston
Attorney-General of Queensland Yvette D'ath. Picture: Liam Kidston

The laws were recommended by the CCC in 2016 and again this year after the investigation into the appointment of the new Inner City South State Secondary College principal, which cleared former deputy premier Jackie Trad of corruption allegations.

They will now be fast-tracked through parliament's committee process and passed in less than a month.

Ms D'Ath said the State Government was adopting the "independent and considered advice" of the CCC in introducing the laws.

A spokesperson for the Australia's Right To Know coalition of media organisations, which includes News Corp Australia - publisher of The Courier-Mail - condemned the laws.

"Gagging reporting of corruption at any time, and particularly before elections, unjustifiably undermines the Queensland and Australian public's right to know about how the state of Queensland is, and could be, governed and administered," the spokesperson said.

Professor Peter Greste - who spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison on terrorism charges for his reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood opposition and is a spokesman for the Alliance for Journalists Freedom - said he wasn't aware of any laws like those proposed for Queensland.

Journalist Peter Greste spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison. Picture: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA
Journalist Peter Greste spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison. Picture: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

"In fact I've never heard of it in any jurisdiction that I've ever worked in as a journalist and I've worked in many authoritarian regimes around the world," he said.

"I think in my view, the most important time for freedom of communication is during an election campaign."

He said there would be vexatious and baseless complaints to the CCC from time to time.

"But I think there is a far greater imperative towards freedom of communication and press freedom, particularly during an election when the character and conduct of our candidates is under scrutiny," Professor Greste said.

"That's the whole point of an election campaign."

Professor Greste said it was "troubling" that the legislation was being rushed through in less than a month as that was not enough time for the required public debate.

Opposition Justice spokesman David Janetzki accused Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk of attempting to "cover-up her government's appalling integrity record and silence whistleblowers".

He said a "conga line" of Palaszczuk ministers had been reprimanded by the state's corruption watchdog in the past five years, including Ms Trad and Transport Minister Mark Bailey.

"Annastacia Palaszczuk has delivered five years of integrity scandals and Queenslanders deserve better than her weak leadership," he said.

The MEAA's Queensland regional director Michelle Rae said the change would "undoubtedly restrain reporting on allegations of substance".

"It's a process of battening down the hatches in a pre-election period," she said. "It is desperate and unnecessary and the Queensland community should be gravely alarmed by this manoeuvre."

She called for the government to immediately scrap the bill, which was "utterly inconsistent with the free exchange of information and the implied right to free speech".

"MEAA's members are incredulous that this is being tried at all, let alone with an election in sight. This legislative overreach should be condemned," she said.

Ms Rae said journalism played an integral role in holding the powerful to account and exposing injustice.

Penalising journalists doing their job was an "attack on the community's right to be informed", she said.

"Queensland is one of the only states that does not afford protections to journalists doing their job and now wants to attack them further in reporting on government."

The Local Government Association of Queensland had previously called for laws to stop people making baseless complaints to the CCC to gain advantage during election campaigns. But it was last night yet to respond to the legislation introduced.

A CCC spokesman declined to comment.

Originally published as Palaszczuk Government's war on free speech


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