By ERWIN CHLANDA
The right to keep news sources confidential, if they request it, has now been enshrined in law in the Northern Territory and “is expected to be enacted in the coming months,” says Natasha Fyles, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice.
Journalists with integrity and courage have always done this – except now they are less likely to go to jail for it.
A court can still order disclosure if it “decides that those rights [of confidentiality] are outweighed by the interests of the public and of justice,” as Ms Fyles (pictured) puts it in a media release.
This may still land the journalist behind bars if he or she insists on protecting informants.
All states and Territories now have “shield laws” except Tasmania and Queensland. South Australia has deferred consideration.
Ms Fyles announced the new law in the self-congratulatory style that has become the hallmark of her government, which has all but extinguished opportunities for journalists – except those compliant with the government – to access news sources direct, including politicians and public servants.
The mandated process is to make enquiries via media minders, in writing, who then provide “lines”.
Yet Ms Fyles says: “Territorians want and deserve a government they can trust” and “to fulfil their roles journalists need first-hand sources of information.
“The Territory Labor Government is restoring trust in government and ensuring transparency with Parliament passing legislation to strengthen protections for NT journalists.
“Dedication and scrutiny” by journalists “has continued with media ensuring our Territory Labor Government is accountable and meets the high standard we’ve set for ourselves.”
Minister Fyles says Territory journalists should have the same protections as those in other jurisdictions.
She says the NT law is going further than the rest of the nation, and these extra provisions raise questions: Are they an attempt by the government to curtail the work of journalists whose mission is to keep the government honest.
“While the [NT] legislation draws on interstate models it also closes some gaps in that legislation” says Ms Fyles.
“Interstate definitions leave the notion of ‘news’ undefined, with no direct requirement that the ‘journalism’ in question involve[s] fair and accurate reporting of information.
“We’ve built in protections for both journalists and the community, ensuring the privilege is only extended to professional journalists.”
This, and the wording of the Act, raise the possibility of Ms Fyles and her government determining what is “fair and accurate reporting,” what is “new or noteworthy information,” what is in the “public interest” and who is a “professional journalist” and who is not.
These are judgements properly left to the consumers of journalism, not to political regimes or courts enforcing their laws.
We asked journalist Paul Murphy to comment, as Chief Executive of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), which incorporates the former Australian Journalists Association (AJA), the journalists’ trade union.
He says such definitions are included in other shield laws and in other legislation in Australia.
They vary from state to state and some definitions are more narrow than others.
The NT shield laws are modelled on the Commonwealth ones which are “pretty good” and broad enough to satisfy concerns, he says.
“All states should have shield laws.”
NOTE: We put questions contained in this article to the media staff of Ms Fyles, well ahead of publication. We will report responses we receive.
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By ERWIN CHLANDA