Michael Sinclair-Jones: Risking a Totalitarian State
Image: Thanks to The Australian and Bill Leak cartoons
Right around Australia, civil society groups have started rallying in plain distrust, dissent and disagreement with the proposed terrorism legislation. A recent press release from WA's Social Justice Network states:
"More than 500 people packed into a forum at the University of Western Australia on Friday 4th November 2005 to express their fears and anger at the government and its proposed anti terrorism legislation. The distrust of government both federal and state was palpable. Emotions ran high at the failure of the Labor opposition to oppose this appalling threatening legislation, with disbelief expressed that this could be happening in this country of ours."
"There were calls for Federal Labor to oppose the Bill in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The WA State Labor government should not cooperate on the implementation of such "draconian legislation."
The Perth forum was addressed by Carmen Lawrence, Federal Labor Member for Fremantle, Rachel Siewert, Greens WA Senator, and Mark Cox, a human rights lawyer. Below is the address to the forum by Michael Sinclair-Jones, the WA Branch Secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
Other Perth Forum pages:
4 Nov 2005 Perth Forum: Rosemary Longhurst: Is Australia afraid? - We are concerned that this package of legislation conveys to the world that Australia is afraid - indicating to the terrorists that they are achieving their aim of generating terror and forcing governments into ever more punitive stances.
4 Nov 2005 Perth Forum: Senator Rachel Siewert: Terror Australis - within the space of a few short months we are now experiencing a fundamental erosion of our democracy and the Australian way of life. The scope of this change is so large it is almost difficult to comprehend, and it is occurring across a front so wide that effective opposition seems to be stymied.
4 Nov 2005 Perth Forum: Mark Cox LLB: Terrifying Democracy - Judges, lawyers, academics, civil and professional organisations, respected individuals, and wide sections of the Australian community, justifiably believe that the Bill and related Federal "anti-terrorist" legislation enacted since 2002 seriously undermine...
9 November 2005: The terror laws: What you can do - This page is a web-page copy of the Anti-terrorism Legislation Action Kit distributed throughout the networks shortly after the Perth Forum. The Kit is also downloadable from this page as a PDF File.
1 November 2005: When the Terrorist Strikes - Resources for Anti-Terror Bill dissenters - You may need to consider how you will have to publicly declare your hand of overt dissent ... if these laws stand as they are at the moment you may need to consider whether in your life a case exists for undermining these laws.
Michael Sinclair-Jones: Risking a Totalitarian State
Address to the Perth public forum "Laws of Terror"
With grateful acknowledgment to source material researched and published by:
My name is Michael Sinclair-Jones and I am the WA Branch Secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
Our members include journalists, artists, photographers who work in print, TV and radio; and actors, filmmakers and other creative workers employed in a broad range of cultural arts and entertainment industries.
I am here today to inform you about my union's grave concerns for the future of free speech in Australia arising from the Federal Government's proposed new anti-terror laws.
Our primary gaol is to protect and defend our members' rights to freedom of expression to enable them to do their job properly without threat of fines or imprisonment.
I don't need to remind you that free speech is the cornerstone of a democratic society.
The right to expose, criticise and even mock public officials is an essential element of a society in which all citizens have a right to be fully informed about how their country is governed.
The proposed new laws pose a dangerous threat to that freedom.
New laws that extend the meaning of the word "sedition" will drastically erode free speech and artistic expression.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines sedition as: "the urging to discontent or rebellion against the government; action or language promoting such discontent or rebellion".
Sedition laws were last used in 1949 to jail Australian Communist Party leader Lance Sharkey for answering a journalist's question on the telephone about whether Australians would welcome Soviets in this country.
Sedition has been described as "the sleeping giant of authoritarianism - it politicises criminal law and has the ability to inhibit free speech and restrict open democracy".
The Government's proposed new anti-terror laws threaten to waken that sleeping giant.
For instance, British playwright David Hare's recent play "Stuff Happens" about the US-Iraq War clearly invites audiences to mistrust, disbelieve or ridicule much of what the so-called "Leaders of the Free World" are saying about the war.
The new laws make it possible to claim that criticism of Government policy in Iraq might assist terrorists and thus falls within the new, broader definition of sedition.
It will no longer be necessary to prove that a person urged others to use force or violence to commit the crime of sedition, only that the effect of their work might urge others to carry out such actions, even if those actions never occurred as a result.
Such sweeping powers are breathtaking in their scope to stifle free speech and radically alter the nature of public debate in Australia.
Some examples include:
Each example, whether it be a news report or documentary, play, film, book, song or TV program, could constitute sedition under Australia's proposed new anti-terror laws.
Writers, directors, producers, actors, singers, painters, journalists, editors, publishers, distributors and broadcasters could all face seven years' gaol for their "crime".
At the very least, the new laws will stifle or drive underground the free expression of opinion and of creative or artistic responses to public and government affairs.
It paints a frightening picture of an emerging new totalitarian state similar to George Orwell's "1984", a book that would be banned if it was written under the new anti-terror laws.
In addition, any journalist who reveals the arrest of a terror suspect, their length of detention, or any other detail of a Federal Police detention or control order, faces five years' jail.
My union believes the penalty aims to silence journalists, intimidate them into submission, and will allow miscarriages of justice to go unquestioned and - inevitably - unnoticed.
The media's ability to inform Australians about Government actions will be further crippled by increased Federal Police powers to demand documents that they claim may relate to terrorism.
Journalists will be forced to hand over information - including the identity of confidential sources - if police believe it will help them investigate a "serious terrorism offence".
The penalty for refusal to comply - as may be required under Clause 3 of the Journalists' Code of Ethics: "Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances" - is $3,300.
The only exception to the Code is if disclosure leads to "substantial advancement of the public interest" or averts the "risk of substantial harm to people".
Any journalist who reveals that they have been issued with a police order or discloses its contents faces a further fine of $13,200.
The threat to jail investigative journalists who seek to obtain private information means nobody will speak to the media.
Only one viewpoint will be heard - that of the Government.
You only have to look at the way the Federal Government sought to jail two Herald Sun journalists for refusing to name the source of leaked Cabinet documents to see that this is not fanciful speculation.
It was only yesterday, after weeks of extreme pressure from the media and public, that the Government announced moves to have the charges dismissed.
The precedent for jailing journalists for doing their job was set in Perth 16 years ago, when former Sunday Times journalist Tony Barrass became the first journalist in Australia to be jailed for refusing to name a Federal Government source.
It is possible that the Government and Premiers did not intend to draft new anti-terror laws that will have such extreme consequences.
Some critics claim existing laws against sedition are strong enough to combat new threats of terrorism.
The Federal Government clearly thinks more powers are needed.
My union is urging members to write to the Prime Minister and all Senators to warn them that extreme sedition laws are dangerous and unnecessary, and should be excluded from the legislation.
These are serious threats to our democratic society.
We risk becoming a totalitarian state for fear of terrorist attack on our democracy.
We cannot and must not allow that to happen.