freepress.watch is a site where I collect information on violations of press freedom here in Australia. The intention is to collect seemingly isolated incidents in one place as a public record of attacks on the media.

It was founded in June 2019 after the Australian Federal Police conducted two raids against journalists in one week, seeking to collect evidence on their sources.

There are lots of caveats that come with a project like this. Some of those are bigger problems than others.

The biggest is that the incidents listed here will always be, despite my best efforts, incomplete. Resourcing, subjectivity and secrecy mean that there will always be things that fall out of the scope of this project, or that are excluded, or that I simply never hear about.

Methodology

Another problem with this work comes down to methodology. The two existing press trackers (The US Press Freedom Tracker and Mapping Media Freedom in the European Union) on which this is modelled work to a high standard and conduct their own investigations after receiving tips. When they hear about a possible violation, they work independently to verify it with multiple sources, and get as close to the parties involved as possible. The US tracker state on their FAQ page that their commitment to this methodology is such that they won’t include incidents from before they launched.

As much as possible I will try to provide multiple news sources for incidents, but independent verification is time-consuming.

Journalists

A central tension in tracking press freedom incidents is always ‘who counts as a journalist?’. It’s a bit of a misguided question. I’m going to take the same approach as many others here: it’s less important whether a person is a journalist (that is, working in a commercial or public newsroom) than whether they were committing an act of journalism. That is, where people have faced impediments to or reprisals for their work in gathering and communicating information to the public, I’ll consider including the incident.

I’ll also focus on sources. Without them there would be a lot of blank pages and dead air, and we should be realistic about who in the process most often bears the brunt of state reprisal. Obviously that can’t be done where sources are anonymous, but where possible that will be a guiding principle.

Subjectivity

Subjectivities emerge in the incidents too, and they’re less easily mitigated here. Some things seem clear cut to me: I suspect that a police investigation or prosecution of a source, and the inevitable pressure and raids on journalists that comes with that, will always make it in. Ditto any time a journalist is compelled against their wishes to give evidence in court.

Other things are less obvious. Defamation actions are a significant problem that the media face here in Australia, but it can be very hard to tease out which of those are strategic lawsuits intended to discredit a story or force a publisher into retraction, and which are more legitimate instances of a massive mistake causing undue harm to an individual’s reputation. I’m also conscious that making that determination and including some of those actions on this site may itself be defamatory.

Harassment is another problem that I’m unlikely to cover in any depth. That’s not because I think it’s unimportant – it’s the opposite. Harassment is a huge issue, particularly that which is aimed at female, LGBT and non-white journalists on social media. It’s simply too big for me to keep track of. I can imagine hypotheticals in which I’m likely to include it – a situation in which the comments or actions of a public figure incites the harassment – but more than any other category it will be underrepresented.

Having talked some of it through, here are the types of violation that I will focus on:

  • State and judicial actions against journalists and their sources will be the main focus.
  • Police actions against journalists and their sources will always be included.
  • Court orders that override shield laws will always be included.
  • Comments or threats made by politicians or other public figures are likely to be included.

And on the other hand, here are some things that I’m still in two minds about:

  • Court orders for breaching suppression orders, scandalising the court or sub judice contempt.
  • Complaints under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
  • Labour issues, including employer reprisals against journalists for taking industrial action
  • Defamation will not be a focus. Other civil actions, such as using a tort of nuisance or trespass against journalists, may be.
  • Online harassment

Here’s what I won’t cover:

  • Editorial decisions and politically biased coverage
  • Threats made by journalists against other journalists

Disclaimers

I’ve heard people say that defending press freedom doesn’t mean defending the best journalism – it means defending all journalism. It’s a messy profession at times, with a tough but largely unenforced ethical code, and at its core is supposed to make many people uncomfortable. Inevitably there will be things on this site that will raise eyebrows.

About me

I’m Gary Dickson. I work at the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, I’m a freelance researcher and I teach media law and ethics at Monash University. I’m on Twitter.

Disclosures

I think it’s important to state that I’m a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the journalists’ union. I’m not currently a member of a political party, but I was a (totally inactive) member of the Greens until 2017.

Thanks

Many people have offered their expertise to this project during its development. My thanks to Hannah Machlin, Peter Sterne, Kirstin McCudden, Erik Moeller,  Stephanie Sugars, Harris Lapiroff, Anders Furze, Matthew Thompson, Justin Boyd, Johan Lidberg and Margaret Simons.