2018-11-23 10:28:12 #MEAAMedia #walkleys MediaRoom Speeches

Good evening and welcome.

I acknowledge and pay my respects to the custodians of the land on which we meet, the Elders, past and present, of the Turrbul and Jagera peoples.

The Walkley Awards recognise the contribution by freelancers across all media platforms and in July this year, the Walkley for Best Freelance Journalist went to Karishma Vyas for her three extraordinary films – Rohingya child brides and brothels, Afghan refugees denied asylum, and the deportations of Cambodian Americans – all screened on Al Jazeera English. Please join me in recognising Karishma’s achievement.

Tonight we celebrate the best in Australian journalism. A reminder that regardless of at times tumultuous disruption, Australian journalists continue to deliver excellence in the finest traditions of our profession.

Our industry does face some significant challenges, both in terms of financial sustainability, and also at times from legislative and political hostility. So it was refreshing to see earlier this year the Senate Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism deliver its findings. It made a number of interesting recommendations, including taxation reforms to support commercial media operators and to encourage new not-for-profit ventures. It also highlighted the funding needs of our public broadcasters.

The committee also made three particularly important recommendations that go the heart of journalists’ continuing ability to do their work ethically and in the public interest.

They recommended an Australian Law Reform Commission audit of laws that adversely affect the work of journalists reporting on the areas of national security and border protection. This is an area where we have had grave concerns. Laws introduced under the banner of national security in recent years have established a range of new offences, including jail terms for journalists. And under data retention laws dozens of government agencies can now secretly access the telecommunications data of journalists, seriously undermining their ability to protect the identity of confidential whistleblowers. And of course earlier this year, along with all the major media organisations, we had to protest long and loud to push back proposals which would have seen journalists imprisoned even for the innocent receipt of information. The balance between national security and freedom of speech is seriously out of whack. A review by the Australian Law Reform Commission would be a welcome initiative.

And if there is an issue that unites every part of our profession then it surely is the need for serious reform of our defamation laws. Here the Senate inquiry recommended the Commonwealth take a leadership role to develop laws that provide a proper balance between public interest reporting and appropriate protection of individuals. We all know that our current laws prevent many important stories being told, and too often provide no protection for media companies when legitimate and truthful stories are published in the public interest.

And thirdly, the inquiry recommended the Commonwealth examine expanded protections for whistleblowers, and also the application of uniform national shield laws so that journalists can appropriately protect confidential sources. It is too often the case that brave whistleblowers are made to pay a terrible personal price for coming forward. This is demonstrated most dramatically at present, I would argue, in the shameful prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery. Witness K deserves praise for bringing to light what would appear to be appalling behaviour by our government, directed against Timor Leste, one of our nearest neighbours and among the poorest nations on earth. Instead of praise there is a prosecution in a closed court. We should all be disgusted at this treatment.

Shield laws are of course vital to journalism, providing an essential protection for journalists who are ethically obliged to protect the identity of confidential sources. We have Commonwealth shield laws, and also state and territory shield laws but they are inconsistent and need harmonisation. Gathering here in Brisbane tonight, we are unfortunately in the only state in Australia that has no shield law protections in place. For reasons that have never been explained. The great state of Queensland needs to do something about this as a matter of urgency.

We should also spend a moment tonight, thinking about how journalism is threatened overseas.

From the constant attacks by the White House to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

We must remember that Myanmar jailed two Reuters journalists because they investigated a massacre of Rohingya men by the military.

Five staff of the Capital Gazette gunned down in a mass shooting in Maryland.

We must also remember the nine Afghan journalists killed at the site of a suicide blast when a second explosion was set off that deliberately targeted the media and first responders.

The International Federation of Journalists says that in the last six years more than 600 journalists have been killed. Nine in 10 cases remain unpunished, and many never properly investigated. Journalists are being killed with impunity. That has driven the International Federation of Journalists to launch a campaign for a new United Nations’ Convention dedicated to the protection of journalists and media professionals. The Convention would recognise that journalists are targeted on account of their profession. MEAA has written to Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Shadow Minister Penny Wong urging Australia to support the proposed Convention.

Finally I’d like to wish all of the finalists tonight the very best of luck. To everyone in the room, enjoy the evening.