Reporters Without Borders is concerned about proposals made at the first session of the Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation on 8 November to give the Press Council the power to penalise newspapers by imposing fines of up to 30,000 Australian dollars and to submit the press to tighter controls, such as the introduction of licences.
“If such measures were adopted, they would undermine Australia’s international credibility as a country with relatively high respect for freedom of the press where news organizations can carry out their work without hindrance,” the press freedom organization said.
“There are already numerous laws controlling journalists, the media and digital communications in Australia. We find the plan to introduce licences and exorbitant fines for the press extremely shocking.
“Measures such as these characterize those countries that are at the bottom of the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. We do not expect to find them in a democracy ranked 18th out of 178 countries in 2010.
“We suggest the inquiry commission turn its attention to the improvement of existing self-regulations systems, rather than recommending new controls which could be misused for political ends.”
In a submission to the inquiry last month, the Press Council proposed its powers be strengthened by giving it the right to impose fines of up to 30,000 Australian dollars “…for example, where the breach of (ethical) standards is exceptionally grave or, together with earlier breaches, constitutes persistent non-compliance with Council adjudications”.
It also suggested the appointment of a special panel headed by a retired judge and able to impose fines.
On 8 September, the Law Council of Australia, the group Seven West Media and the Newspaper Publishers Association all rejected the proposals to introduce licences and tighter controls.
The inquiry, announced on 14 September by the minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy Stephen Conroy, is looking at ways to enhance media diversity, and “ways of substantially strengthening” the Press Council’s effectiveness.
The first public session of the commission took place in Melbourne on 8 November. The media organization News Limited, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and the Australian Associated Press news agency will appear at hearings in Sydney tomorrow, followed by the Australian Press Council the next day.
The inquiry is due to produce a report that will be submitted to the minister of communications in February next year.
Reporters Without Borders expressed its concern on 16 September at the possibility that discussion of media regulation might become confused with tighter control of the press.