Australia's media censorship undermines its Pacific push

This month has been replete with ironies in the ongoing battle for influence among Pacific nations, especially between Australia and China.

First, we had the publication of the Lowy Institute data showing that China has edged out Australia as Samoa's top donor for the year by some US$4 million – the first time this has happened. 

This should be no surprise. If Pacific diplomacy is an auction – as most cynical observers claim – then Australia could never compete with China’s deep pockets. Australia’s own wealth is almost entirely driven by access to the Chinese market. 

But one thing Australia and its “five eyes” intelligence partners – New Zealand, Canada, America and Britain – have had going for them is a quantity that is truly priceless: that is respect for its commitment to values of transparency.

Australia has used this criticism of China sparingly and mutely, because of the economic reliance stated above its game of geopolitical chess with China has been played in a most gentlemanly manner.

Not this month. 

“In a democracy like ours, we encourage freedom of speech, freedom of expression, thought, and if that’s being impinged, if people are operating outside of the law, then whether they’re from China or from any other country, we have a right to call that out,” the Australian Home Affairs Minister said during a wide-ranging attack on China earlier this month.

China by contrast at this week’s third China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum was listening to invited nations, including our very own Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, freely express grievances about the inequities in our economic relationship. 

Andrew Hastie, an M.P. from the party of Government in Australia, in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about the battle for influence in the Pacific accused Australia of not making enough of its cherished freedoms and what this would mean if China became the dominant regional influence. 

He more than overreached when he said Australia had its Pacific version of the “Maginot Line” breached. (This is an obscure historical reference to the French border with Germany the Nazis invaded in 1940 and an unsubtle comparison of the Chinese Government to that regime.)

Back to these ironies. 

This really was not the month for Australia to be puffing out its chest about its moral superiority. 

You may have missed the front page on Tuesday’s Samoa Observer where the story titled “Aussie papers unite for press freedom" was published. 

It document that rival newspapers in Australia’s fiercely competitive media market united on Monday to run the same front page – a wall of censored text with a powerful concluding line: "When the Government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering up?"

The campaign relates to media censorship laws passed in Australia last year that gave the authorities to raid or even jail journalists for stories deemed a threat to “national security” (a very inclusively defined concept). 

Anyone caught passing on “classified” information from a public servant – and that includes those who publishes it the editors, the publishers and the reporters – can be jailed for up to five years.

Laws have also been passed allowing Police access to journalists’ telecommunications records with the aim of identifying confidential sources. The examples, sadly, go on. 

The powers were used in a way that shocked the Australian and overseas public. 

The offices of Australia’s state-owned broadcaster were raided by Police who seized thousands of e-mails trying to find a source who had tipped journalists off about allegedly criminal misbehaviour by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

That criminal behaviour now extends to whether a member of Australia's most elite group of soldiers handcuffed an innocent man in Afghanistan and kicked him off a cliff. It would be difficult to mount a case that the Australian public does not have a right to know about this being committed in their names. 

Then the home of Annika Smethurst was raided for about ten hours. Police were looking for information about a recent report she’d filed about plan before Cabinet to give the authorities the right to access private information including bank accounts without warrants.

Ms. Smethurst, who is in her 20s, had her home turned upside down; the Police even meticulously searched her underwear drawer in what was hard to view as anything but an act of intimidation. 

To say this is harming Australia’s reputation is putting it mildly.

Senior Lecturer Jock Cheetham from Australia’s Charles Sturt University provided me with a forthcoming paper for Sydney P.E.N. magazine about how the American media (the country that has historically been Australia’s most loyal ally) viewed the state of affairs in the Australian fourth estate:

In 2014, the Washington Post examined whether Australia was becoming a “national security state”. 

After the AFP raids this year, The New Republic wrote “when it comes to press freedom … Australia is a dismal backwater”. 

And Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 21st most free in the world (a ranking bestowed before the raids) as one where “independent investigative reporters and whistle-blowers face draconian legislation.”

As the Nazi comparison shows debates about regional influence and values lend themselves to hyperbole and even histrionics.

Australia still retains a diverse privately owned media sector that functions as a fourth estate; it does not monitor its citizens aggressively. The same cannot be said of China. 

The point of this is not to analogise the two countries. 

But as this week’s Forum showed China has been outpointing Australia diplomatically; the latter’s Pacific influence is waning despite a $2.7 billion investment. 

In a short space of time Australia has trashed its reputation for moral leadership on press freedom won for over two centuries.

That is a great shame for its local democracy (75 per cent of voters disagree with the laws according to national polling).

But the regional implications are also considerable. As Australia's influence, including financial influence, begins to wane, its next strongest weapon – rhetoric – is now tarnished by hypocrisy. 

The moral high ground belongs only to its permanent occupants. 

What do you think, Samoa? Have a wonderful Saturday. And God bless.  

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