Australian media giants demand an end to curbs on press freedom

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s national broadcaster and two biggest newspaper publishers called on the government on Wednesday to protect press freedom, declaring media laws outdated, inconsistent and used by the powerful to keep embarrassing information secret.

News Corp Executive Chairman Michael Miller (right) speaks while Managing Director ABC David Anderson (centre) and Nine Chief Executive Officer Hugh Marks look on during a National Press Club panel discussion in Canberra, Australia, June 26, 2019. AAP Image/Rohan Thomson/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. AUSTRALIA OUT. NEW ZEALAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN NEW ZEALAND. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN AUSTRALIA.

The state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC), News Corp’s Australian arm, and broadcaster and newspaper publisher Nine Entertainment Co Holdings Ltd made the demand after a series of police raids, adverse court rulings and criminal prosecutions of journalists.

The rare show of unity by Australia’s usually tribal media industry underscored concern about a lack of legal protection for journalists. The issue grabbed international attention earlier this month when police raided the ABC’s head office in Sydney and a News Corp editor’s home over separate reports.

“Something has shifted,” said Michael Miller, News Corp executive chairman for Australia and New Zealand.

“The raids ... were intimidation, not investigation,” he said in a joint speech by the media bosses in Canberra.

ABC managing director David Anderson said government rhetoric about the importance of a free press was “not being matched by the reality”.

“Our journalists have too many impediments in their path including the unacceptable risk of being treated as criminals,” Anderson said.

He said the raid on the ABC office was based on a World War One-era Crimes Act.

The ABC and News Corp plan to challenge the legality of the raids, although Miller said that would not address concerns about how warrants for the raids were issued.

Global attention turned to press freedom in Australia after a court order prevented media outlets reporting on a guilty verdict on child sex abuse charges against Catholic Cardinal George Pell.

Some Australian outlets reported that an unidentified person had been convicted but some foreign media companies identified Pell because they were outside Australia’s jurisdiction.

Prosecutors are now seeking fines and jail time for three dozen Australian journalists and publishers for their coverage of the trial. Pell is appealing against his guilty verdict.

Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush was awarded a A$2.8 million ($2 million) defamation payment in May against News Corp, the largest defamation payout in Australian history, after it published reports accusing him of inappropriate behavior. News Corp is appealing against that finding.

A court found this week three media companies, including News Corp and Nine-owned newspaper publisher Fairfax, were liable for defamatory comments posted below articles on their Facebook pages despite being unable to edit the comments by members of the public.

“The growth of costly judgments based on Facebook posts or Google reviews show the law has ... failed to keep step with the way the world has changed,” said Nine CEO Hugh Marks.

Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Paul Tait