The Australian Press is Coming Down With a Case of Democratic Flu: Johan Lidberg Speaks on Repression, Whistleblowing, Corruption, and Climate Change

johan lidberg
Johan Lidberg. Photo by Monash University.

by Ben Hollihan

At MacEwan University on Monday, Jan. 27, visiting scholar Johan Lidberg brought words of nigh doom for not only the Australian press, but the deteriorating climate as well, in his keynote speech entitled “In the Name of Security — Secrecy, Surveillance, and Journalism.”

Lidberg, who is the Deputy Head of Journalism at Monash University, and who co-wrote a book on press freedoms with the same title as his keynote, spoke on the dire situation facing the Australian press. In Australia, there is no charter of rights to protect press freedoms, whistleblowers are ‘hunted’, a populist Prime Minister is in office, and public servants cannot legally expose corruption. “The base protection for free speech and free press in Australia is quite weak,” said Lidberg, “probably the weakest that I’ve found in any liberal democracy.” Since Sept. 11, 2001, Australia has used the war on terror to pass over 80 national security laws, continuously repressing freedom of information in the country. Lidberg referred to these collective issues as the “democratic flu.”

“Australia is an absolute outlier in the world,” Lidberg said about Western press freedom.

Australia has a history of jailing journalists going back to the 1990’s. Lidberg spoke in depth on one of the most recent examples: the June 2019 raid of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) offices by the Australian Federal Police. This raid was a result of the “Afghan Files” story ABC aired, in which a coverup of illegal killing by the Australian military in Afghanistan was examined. This government interference in the press, similar to the Australian press blackout on the trial of George Pell, has become commonplace. Lidberg argued that national security laws normalize these events: “there is no baseline, no rulebook for what the relationship should be between the states and citizens. Had we had that, we would’ve never gotten to where we are today,” Lidberg said.

The press is not innocent in this situation. Lidberg believes that editors and journalists have allowed themselves to be repressed. The press in Australia has historically withheld stories on issues facing their industry, and this arrogant attitude has kept the public from information that affects them as well. “We’ve got to do away with this gatekeeping stuff towards our audiences…we’re in a different situation now,” said Lidberg.

The treatment for this flu? A bill of rights that protect freedom of the press, said Lidberg. Unfortunately, Australian polls show little support for it. Most support the increase in national security laws, despite not fully understanding the repercussions. “This extends beyond national security…ultimately it comes to down to civil liberties,” said Lidberg.

Australia is not the only Western country that finds itself facing daunting issues with journalism. Becca Willson, a MacEwan journalism student who attended the talk, spoke about her education on the widespread mistrust of journalists in Canada. The conflicts surrounding the press faced by both Australia and Canada are critical because “the need for free media and trustworthy news reporting is always going to be one of the most important things for democracy,” said Willson.

Lidberg’s keynote took a sharp turn when he concluded with a call to action regarding climate change. Climate change policy, or the lack of, in Australia is a result of the war on terror. The resources dedicated to national security laws, Lidberg said, could’ve been channelled instead to battling climate change. Lidberg was one of the many displaced during the massive bush fires, in which a billion animals died. “Is climate change not a greater threat than terrorism?” asked Lidberg.



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