Government lacks focus on rights: Human rights in the media in October

By Pia White
Senator George Brandis

The Australian Government was heavily criticised for paying little attention to rights on two major issues during October: it’s new anti-terror laws and it’s response to the spread of Ebola.

The threats of anti-terror laws

The past month saw the introduction of the raft of anti-terrorism laws announced by the government in September. The  Foreign Fighters Bill, the Data Retention Bill and the National Security Amendment Bill (No 1) 2014 are currently in various a stages of passage through parliament.

Three main measures of the laws that have been the subject of considerable debate include the criminalising of travel to terrorist “hot spots” as determined by the foreign minister, restrictions on publicly disclosing information on ASIO operations and an obligation that internet providers retain metadata for up to two years.

Broadly speaking, critics of the new anti-terrorism legislation argue that the measure are a disproportionate response to the treats Australia is facing given the consequences many argue the legislation will have on the rights of Australians. Green’s leader Christine Milne described the laws as “overreach” and suggested they will impinge on the rights of Australians.

ABC’s Media Watch has given paid considerable attention to the legislation. While the laws do not specifically target journalists, it has been argued that their effects are most concerning when considering the role and freedom of the media.

The program examined whether the metadata retention proposals could discourage journalists and whistleblowers from pursuing stories, as well as whether the Foreign Fighters Bill could apply to media organisations or journalists who pay to licence footage that could be considered to promote terrorism, such as certain ISIS recruitment videos.

Additionally, particular consideration was given to section 35P of the National Security Amendment Bill (No 1) 2014 and the prohibitions it places on disclosing information about intelligence operations. It was suggested that preventing journalists from reporting on such operations, even years after their completion, hampers the freedom of the press and the role it can play in keeping ten government accountable, especially when such operations go wrong. Similar concerns were raised by Julian Burnside on Q&A, when he recalled the botched 1983 ASIS raid on the Sheraton Hotel as an example of incidents that couldn’t be reported under the laws, but which the public should be informed of in a democracy.

Further criticisms of the laws have been directed at the ten year jail terms for visiting a “terrorist hot spot” without a valid reason. Green’s deputy leader, Adam Bandt suggested that the move reverses the presumption of innocence and that the laws could be applied undesirably.

The ALP had, up until recently, maintained its support for the measures, choosing to credit themselves with the “substantive” revisions made following the recommendations of the bipartisan joint parliamentary committee, including reducing a number of sunset clauses that ensure the legislation will be reviewed earlier than the ten years proposed in many cases. However, Bill Shorten appears to have been listening to critics of the laws, having recently requested that the government refer the laws to the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor for review, in particular to consider inserting a public interest test to section 35P.

The government, on the other hand, has been consistently defending the legislation for months, with attorney-general, George Brandis recently stating that in a “newly dangerous age, it was vital that those protecting Australia were equipped with the powers and capabilities they needed.”

However, the persuasiveness of the government’s line of reasoning  seems to be dependant on whether Australians are more alarmed by the threat of terrorism, or the erosion of their rights. As Julian Burnside said on Q&A, (quoting a House of Lords decision), “the life of the nation is less threatened by terrorism than it is by laws like these.”

Australia fails in Ebola response

With the extensive media coverage of the issue, the world has been closely watching the deadly spread of the Ebola epidemic in west Africa over the past month. The World Health Organisation has estimated that the virus has so far killed almost 5,000 people and infected close to 14,000 others. The importance of those affected receiving proper medical treatment and the need for international cooperation to contain the virus has been widely emphasised, and the role that Australia has been playing in achieving these aims has been scrutinised.

Although the government has  contributed more than $40 million in aid to the World Health Organisation and frontline operations, it has so far refused to commit any health workers to assist in the affected regions. Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has indicated he is unprepared to do so until satisfied that measures were in place to ensure that any such Australians who contracted the virus would be safely evacuated and treated.

However, this position has been criticised by the international community. Foreign governments and NGOs have been calling on Australia to do more. During an appearance on the program Q&A, shadow health minister Catherine King described the importance of containing the disease and suggested that the government’s response has been disgracefully slow.  Further, as pointed by President of the Australian Medical Association, Brian Owler, with the establishment of a US field hospital in Liberia that has “the capacity to deliver quality medical treatment to international health workers who contract the virus, the excuse that we can’t adequately treat Australian workers doesn’t wash any more.”

The government has also faced criticism over its decision to suspend issuing visas to people from Ebola affected countries. Both the UN and the WHO have suggested that such measure could discourage health workers from volunteering and Sierra Leone has described the move as “discriminatory” and “draconian”.

Bobby Whitfield, president of Liberian Communities in Australia, went further, suggesting that the policy is using Ebola as an excuse to cut Australia’s refugee intake from Africa. While there hasn’t been any discussion of this claim, the Immigration minister’s motives for getting involved in the response to ebola have been questioned.

With many believing that Australia’s obligation to respond to the ebola crisis is both a moral one and one in the national interest, it has been asked why the government has been so reluctant to play a more active role. Health spokesperson for the Greens, Richard Di Natale posed a valid question, when asking why Australia “can agree to a military intervention in Iraq in the name of saving lives and yet we cannot commit a fraction of those resources to an emergency the UN has said is a bigger threat than terrorism?”

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