Whistle Blower Season: Who Tells the Story When Journalists Cannot?

Monash University’s Johan Lidberg speaks for silenced Australian journalists, and the burning outback

By: Andy Trussler

“Whistle Blower Hunting,” Monash University’s Associate Professor Johan Lidberg solemnly tells MacEwan University, “it’s turned into an Australian sport.”

Lidberg, Deputy Head of Journalism, Media, Film and Journalism from Melbourne’s Monash University knows the dangers of a post 9/11 world. When whistleblowers become public targets, and the Australian police ever watchful, journalistic freedom is ablaze like the country, claiming acres of information every year.

Lidberg’s keynote “In The Name of Security — Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism” was held in MacEwan University’s Feigel Conference Center on January 27, 2020. 

Following a June 2019 police raid on ABC, one of Australia’s chief News Networks, detaining over 100 files and confidential emails. Lidberg’s talk emphasizes that without a bill of rights, Australia’s independent journalists live under constant scrutiny and fire.

ABC’s raid followed the “Afghan Papers,” a project wherein Australian journalists documented military abuses of power. The warrant provided by AFP granted them the ability to “add, copy, delete, or alter” any relevant files recovered.

Lidberg’s keynote speech highlights the vigilance media organizations must uphold following September 11, 2001. In Australia alone, more than 80 new or amended anti-terror laws have come into place. Without an active bill of rights, journalists withholding valuable information are subject to investigation in the name of public safety. When said information regards terror or military concerns, the risk is higher.

“The climate has become harsher for independent reporting,” Lidberg says, pausing a moment before the room of student journalists, “especially when it comes to national security.”

Australian defamation laws force publishers and editors to confirm inside information. Civil liberties and government are held in a delicate balance, with either side threatening to give at a moment’s notice.

Lidberg puts the onus of responsibility on his country’s “strong man” Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Following Scott’s 2019 meeting with American President Donald Trump, Lidberg claims Scott has begun to replicate and reproduce Trump’s anti-media, anti-journalism rhetoric.

“It was uncanny,” Lidberg laughs, “you could almost put a Trump press conference next to a Scott Morrison press conference and look at the similar indication signs … mainly attacking anyone who questions you.” 

Professor Lidberg tells the room that this behaviour exists within the Morrison “camera bubble.” “Strong men,” as Lidberg calls them, perform for the camera, attack journalists, and purposefully condemn the truth. 

MacEwan University’s Assistant Professor Neill Fitzpatrick attended the keynote. As a media veteran of many years, Fitzpatrick’s time spent with Canadian CBC News and Global Television taught him firsthand about the world of government censorship; however, Lidberg’s description of Australia’s media climate shocked him.

While not overly concerned about Canada’s treatment of journalists, Fitzpatrick was stunned to think a democracy such as Australia could face such treatment. 

“It’s certainly opened my eyes to what potentially could happen and what seems to be happening in a country like Australia,” Fitzpatrick said, following the talk, “It’s not something, I think, most Canadians are aware of.”

Climate change is where the focus should be, Lidberg believes. The UN Environment Program cites over, “18 million hectares have burned in the Australian Bush Fire … destroying over 5,900 buildings, including over 2,800 homes.” 

80 or more aforementioned anti-terror laws were put in place in 9/11’s wake, while almost none exist addressing climate change. The UN continues that, “the 2019–2020 bushfires have already emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Lidberg, horrified by these statistics, somberly tells the room, “Australia may have some of the first climate refugees on the planet.” Lidberg concludes his talk and following question period by urging journalistic gatekeeping to end, and demanding the Australian government offer quality solutions. 

The media and civil liberty act offer hope, but Lidberg concludes, “I will believe the turning point when I see it.”

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