FoI in Australia: fears for whistleblowers

Despite welcome moves to improve press freedom in Australia, the federal Government has failed to remove the "cloak of secrecy" that hangs around its own activities and those of the courts, according to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Under proposed new laws, not all whistleblowers will be protected if they speak out and journalists who refuse to reveal the identity of their sources may still be convicted.

In its annual review of press freedom, delivered last Friday, the MEAA applauds the long-awaited overhaul of Freedom of Information legislation, which promotes a "pro-disclosure" culture across government and will establish a new Office of the Information Commissioner.

In the first 18 months of the Rudd Government, FOI searches have taken longer, have been more expensive and more requests have been denied than in previous years.

While it has been proposed to reduce the moratorium on access to cabinet documents from 30 years to 20 years (and cabinet diaries from 50 years to 30 years), many are of the view that the critical workings of government will still be hidden from view for too long.

There are many concerns about the new measures designed to protect whistleblowers who speak with the media.

Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act proposed, people who leak stories to the media about public health and safety can be spared prosecution, but not those who expose corruption or maladministration.

Whistleblowers left exposed by new shield laws (The Australian, 3 May 2009)