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Issue #1771      March 29, 2017


Freedom from speech

The proposed amendments to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are part of a wider picture of an attack on democratic rights. They have little to do with genuine freedom of speech, which carries with it responsibilities. Genuine freedom of speech, however, is being curbed in a gradual and insidious process.

Secrecy laws and an increasingly aggressive stand towards whistleblowers mean that people who dare to expose the most serious cases of human rights abuses, corruption and other wrongdoings, face the loss of their job or jail. Journalists and others risk up to 10 years’ jail if they reveal information about operations that the Attorney-General deems “special intelligence operations.” This includes information about the harm being done to asylum seekers and drownings at sea when boats are turned back.

Special legislation was introduced to silence journalists, medical staff, teachers and other staff in detention centres with “offenders” facing punishment of two years’ jail. Later the government exempted doctors but for others the legislation still remains in place.

Metadata laws, ostensibly put in place to combat terrorism, threaten the ability of journalists to maintain confidentiality on matters of public importance. This is another way of silencing the media.

The freedom to criticise governments is a basic democratic right, but one that is increasingly being eroded. The government is including gag clauses in funding agreements with non-government organisations to prevent them from taking a public stand on issues such as the environment, housing, social issues and community services. The government’s funding cuts target environmental organisations and groups that represent the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. The government has threatened some organisations with the loss of tax deductibility for gifts to these organisations – a tax status that is important to many of them. It would like to restrict funding to organisations that work in the area of advocacy or policy.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection is reported to have required organisations working in offshore centres to pay bonds of up to $2 million that might be forfeited if they spoke against the government’s policy and actions. The Save the Children group refused, seeing it as a gag clause, and paid the price – they lost their contract. It is reaching a situation where any organisation or individual who is critical of the government’s actions is punished and vilified. This has led to self-censoring by some organisations and creates a chilling climate of fear.

In the case of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs, the government turned on her with a vengeance and attempted to force her resignation following her damning but honest report, The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014). Instead of acting on the report’s findings and ending its inhumane and cruel detention of children, the government retaliated by cutting the Commission’s funding by 30 percent. In relation to the Human Rights Commission’s opposition to the government’s amendments to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott described the Commission as a “lecturing, hectoring, bullying bureaucracy.” He should look in the mirror!

Some state governments have also attached gag provisions to funding agreements and contracts.

By keeping people in the dark and fanning hatred and intolerance, the government seeks to divide the working class and divert attention from the government’s policies which are hurting low paid workers and the most vulnerable.

It is impossible to talk about freedom of speech when people can go to jail for revealing the systemic abuse of children, women and men who come to our shores fleeing war and persecution, seeking our assistance. Or when bigots feed at the trough of hatred and fear.

Next article – CFMEU and WA Unions rally

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