The Marginalisation of Free Speech

1 Jul 2018

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press has always been a double edged sword for Aboriginal people. At its worst, the media perpetuates racist stereotypes that continue the Australian tradition of oppressing Aboriginal people throughout the centuries...

Nigel Scullion

Great journalism gives voice to the voiceless.

It can expose corruption and unravel the complex powers structures that intersect our daily lives.

One of the hallmarks of a vibrant and healthy democracy is freedom of expression – the ability to challenge authority, and to hold to account the elected, unelected and unelectable.

This is best done in a free and diverse media landscape and where individuals and community organisations can advocate on behalf of their constituents.

We therefore live in alarming times.

Hate speech has been enabled under the guise of ‘free speech’. Any boiled sausage with cheap make up, bad lighting and ill-conceived prejudices can clog up our air waves with assertions designed purely to draw the outrage of fair minded people. It’s a living I s’pose. Where else would these types get a gig? As established members of the political class? Well yes. But other than that, they would struggle.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press has always been a double edged sword for Aboriginal people. At its worst, the media perpetuates racist stereotypes that continue the Australian tradition of oppressing Aboriginal people throughout the centuries, of this nature, there are just too many examples to cite.

At its best, the freedom inherent in our national discourse has exposed abuse of children in detention, seen men imprisoned for the manslaughter and aggravated sexual assault of Lynette Daly and, via Indigenous voices on social media, has opened up a serious dialogue on true reconciliation.

So it is of great concern to learn that criminal proceedings are being brought against two men, lawyer Bernard Collaery and his client known only as ‘Witness K’.

Their alleged crime? Exposing a secret Australian spying operation against the Government of East Timor, one of the world’s poorest nations, and supposed ally and strategic partner.

If found guilty, both men could be facing ten years imprisonment for breaching Section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act 2001. If these laws existed in America in 1972, Watergate would still just be the name of a building in Washington.

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The laws that aim not only to penalise officers of the Commonwealth who leak classified information, it criminalises the reporting of the leaked information and has significant legal ramifications for those who represent the accused.

It is with bemusement then we note the roaring silence from our freedom of speech super heroes. The ones that want to obliterate Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the same one who haven’t used their x-ray vision to read Section 18D. Remember not even 18D could get Andrew Bolt off the hook for breaching the Racial Discrimination Act, a truly remarkable act of gross incompetence. Bolt et al have been crusading on the protection of free speech ever since, day in, day out.

Freedom of speech has been tacitly redefined as the freedom to hate, or s George Brandis famously commented, the right to be a bigot.

But what about actual free speech?

Oppression in the modern age creeps, but it doesn’t run. The gradual erosion of people’s freedoms, in Australia’s case under the guise of ‘national security’, has done more to chip away at freedom of speech than 18C ever could. The muddying of transparency and attacks on dissent have been ongoing for years. Anyone who lived in Sir Joh’s Queensland knows it only too well. But let’s look at the current state of play in 2018 Australia.

It is now generally illegal to strike in Australia. Striking as part of industrial action, as part of a political campaign or striking in sympathy for the plight of others. Sir Joh would be rolling with delight in his grave at the thought of such powers.

Imagine how Lord Vestey would have exploited our current industrial laws as Vincent Lingiari and his men sought better pay and conditions at Wave Hill all those years ago.

The Government has evoked ‘on water’ secrecy to prevent reporting of the stopping of refugees seeking asylum in Australia by boat. We have diminished the same people further by dehumanising their status further to illegal aliens. Let’s at least be grateful that our political spin masters didn’t think of the term ‘on red dirt matters’ when it came to reporting on the NT Intervention.

Public servants now face disciplinary action if they like or share anti-government posts on Facebook. This includes tweeting or retweeting posts that are critical of government policy and even extends to the use of the angry face emoji.

For us in the Aboriginal community the quashing of dissent is particularly problematic. The ability to show dissent and to agitate is at the core of our ongoing struggle for justice. Nothing that has been achieved by our people has come without agitation or litigation. The Abbott/Turnbull Governments have taken a firm stance against funding community organisations for any form of advocacy, this is having an impact on Aboriginal community organisations.

Our organisations have been the main driving force in giving voice to the myriad of issues suffered by Aboriginal people. The advocacy from these bodies have led to Royal Commissions, lead to the national apology to the stolen generations and generated the closing the gap agenda. All this while providing quality and essential services to their own communities. If they had remained silent and grateful, where would we be now?

So where were the freedom fighters at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and in the punditry when these attacks on our free speech were taking place? Oh that’s right, they were busy calling for the abolishment of 18C and the privatisation of the ABC. They’ve been banging on about political correctness gone mad, they deride snowflakes for virtue signalling while signalling the virtue of coal.

So where does this leave us?

The few examples cited are fundamental human rights which are being diminished so those in power retain power. We live in a country where we are able to vote, but democracy is so much more than casting a vote. We need our currently free press to do its job and if it can’t do its job then it will be up to the merely decent among us to do it for them. The continual erosion of these fundamental rights needs to start having political consequences, the more institutions and people are silenced, the less consequential their issues become.

This is what happens when we are told we live in an economy, not a society.

If you want know how it’s done all you to do is look back on the history of modern Aboriginal activism. It is full of dissenters and agitators. For generation upon generation our people have tried to be silenced, it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked because our communities have never rested on their laurels and won’t any time soon.

As our agitators of yesterday finally become the heroes of today we know better than most the truth behind the quote, “Every society honors its live conformists, and its dead troublemakers.

The first and last line in the defense against authoritarianism remains a free and diverse media. Digital platforms are now amplifying a range of voices that have not previously had a place in the media landscape, there is hope but we have to wise up before it’s too late, it’s only our democracy, civility and our freedom at stake. Take it from us in the Aboriginal community, we’ve had to fight for each every step of the way.

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