Human Rights in the Media: February – Mid-Week Review

By Pia White
TonyAbbottABC

By Pia White

Over recent weeks, Right Now has featured a number of pieces that deftly explore the relationships between technology and human rights. When seeking to discuss such a connection in the context of media treatment of human rights, an important focus is that of “information.”

It is not particularly revealing to acknowledge the way technology has altered our access to, and consumption of, information.  Most obviously and most significantly, the volume of information available to us has increased exponentially, as have the platforms by which we can share and process information. Consequently, it becomes necessary to examine our rights and obligations in regard to accessing and publishing information, as well as those of our government and media outlets.

Balancing the Racial Discrimination Act

The issue of balancing rights has been raised in the overlapping, but arguably competing rights of free speech and freedom from discrimination.

The intersection of these rights has been in contention since Tony Abbott’s election promise to redirect the balance of human rights in Australia in favour of free speech. More recently, Attorney General, George Brandis reaffirmed this intention at a Senate estimates hearing.

… the question of balancing the right to free speech with protection from racial discrimination is particularly important in an age where the relatively unrestricted exercise of free speech can reach a wider audience than ever before …

The government’s focus centres on reviewing the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) , in particular repealing Section 18C which prohibits behaviour likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity. This Section gained notoriety after Andrew Bolt was found to have contravened it in 2011 as a result of comments made in his column about “fair skinned Indigenous people milking the system.”

The proposal has been met with criticism including from Greens MP, Adam Bandt who disagreed that the legislation “unduly impinges on free speech” and most notably from Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane who suggests it could “’licence racial hatred.”

This issue will no doubt receive more media coverage as the policy develops, however the question of balancing the right to free speech with protection from racial discrimination is particularly important in an age where the relatively unrestricted exercise of free speech can reach a wider audience than ever before and racism and racial insensitivity continues to abound. In light of this, it seems necessary to question which rights are in most need of “championing.”

Allegations and the ABC

The issue of free speech has also been raised in regard to Tony Abbott’s criticism of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation over its reporting of abuse allegations levelled at the Australian Navy.

The ABC initially reported that several asylum seekers had received burns to their palms at the hands of Australian naval personnel. However as the likelihood that the ABC’s account was accurate diminished, so the criticism of its practices mounted, culminating in the ABC’s own Media Watch concluding that “ ABC news got it wrong.”

… the ABC released a statement expressing regret over the possibility that its reporting led readers to believe the accounts presented were anything more than allegations, but also turned attention back on the government by requesting more transparent disclosure …

The Prime Minister responded by stating that it ”dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everybody’s side but our own” and that the ABC should have been prepared to give the navy “the benefit of the doubt.” Defence Minister, David Johnston went further, stating that the Australian navy was “maliciously maligned” by the ABC’s reporting of the incident.

This came in the wake of similar condemnation of the ABC by the Abbott government last year, after it published documents revealing that Australian intelligence agencies had tapped the Indonesian President’s phone.

Soon after the reports of alleged abuse by navy personnel, the government announced an efficiency study of the ABC. Deputy Opposition leader, Tanya Plibersek described it as an “axe over the head” of the ABC (one which would encourage self-censorship), however the study’s terms of reference clarifies that “it is not a study of the quality of the national broadcaster’s programs… but of the efficiency of the delivery of those services to the Australian public.

Interestingly, divergent opinions on the matter emerged within the Liberal Party, with Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull stating that politicians cannot dictate what the ABC can write, and Liberal MP Craig Laundy, extolling the democratic virtue of “free speech.”

On February 4, 2014, the ABC released a statement expressing regret over the possibility that its reporting led readers to believe the accounts presented were anything more than allegations, but also turned attention back on the government by requesting more transparent disclosure on the issue of boat arrivals.

Panellists on Q&A on 3 February expressed similar criticisms. Ray Martin and Akmal Saleh defended the ABC’s decision to report the allegations, particularly in consideration of the government’s “secrecy policy.”  Additionally, an audience member questioned how the Coalition could justify its disapproval of a perceived bias of the ABC, with its failure to extend the same critique to reporting by News Corp publications during the last federal election (as covered in the August 2013 Media Review).

Whatever shortcomings can be identified in the ABC’s handling of the naval abuse allegations,  it seems pertinent to keep in mind the responsibility of all media outlets to report extensively on Australia’s asylum seeker policies in the face of mounting international condemnation, the government’s numerous failings in its responsibilities to asylum seekers in its care, and its lack of transparency and policies of  silence and secrecy. In juxtaposing Abbott’s reaction to this issue with his stance on free speech vis-à-vis racial discrimination, his line (superficially at least), seems less than coherent.

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