FOI in Australia - media, privacy and FOI

According to The Australian, the nation's media is being threatened with a new round of reporting restrictions and legal changes that will subject it to an avalanche of litigation. The latest threat is a move by the New South Wales Government for a plaintiff-friendly way of suing the media over invasions of privacy.

Press Council chairman Ken McKinnon said the new laws, which rely on judicial discretion, would do nothing to prevent journalists being jailed for contempt of court for protecting sources in the public service. Shield laws were promised by federal attorney-general Philip Ruddock in 2005 after Herald-Sun journalists Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus were threatened with prison for refusing to name a source in the federal public service.

The problem with the planned shield laws is that they will not address the real problem: federal laws that impose criminal sanctions on public servants who leak to the media. In any criminal prosecution judges are likely to use their discretion to obtain the identity of the alleged criminal instead of respecting journalists' ethics.

These moves and a series of others have prompted lawyers to question whether the right to free speech, and the public's right to know, is in danger of being overwhelmed. Former Press Council chief David Flint warned that the proposed law was unnecessary, would encourage litigation and merely provide a new stream of work for lawyers.

In another story reported by The Australian, legal academic Rick Snell said that last year's landmark High Court decision on the Freedom of Information Act has effectively neutered the legislation as a method of gaining access to contentious information.

The latest annual report on the Commonwealth FOI Act shows that 15 per cent of the FOI requests received by government agencies in the last financial year sought access to non-personal information such as details of policy development and government decision-making. Of the 38,987 requests that were determined last year, just 4690 concerned requests for information in the non-personal category. Of those, 537 were refused and another 1629 were only partly successful.

When these two categories are considered together, the report reveals that 46.3 per cent of requests for non-personal information were refused in whole or in part.

"We are now in a self-perpetuating cycle. Journalists and others who have tried to use the act for its real purpose have been frustrated either by the fees, delays or refusals," Mr Snell said.

Privacy law to hit press freedom (The Australian, 22 March 2007)

Pattern of FOI secrecy emerges (The Australian, 22 March 2007)