Media chiefs slam Australian press freedom curbs

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Australia's tarnished reputation as a bastion of press freedom came under further attack on Tuesday, with media executives telling a parliamentary inquiry there are many laws that criminalize journalism in a country plagued by an air of official secrecy.

The comments came at the start of an inquiry into press freedom by Parliament's Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security that was called following high-profile raids on media outlets by the Australian Federal Police in June.

A dozen senior executives from Australia's major news organizations presented a united front at the Sydney hearing, demanding changes to national security laws to protect journalists.

News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller said Australia has "many laws that criminalize journalism" and which are "creating a secret society that most Australians would not recognize as our own."

Miller criticized lawmakers for stamping the words "secret" or "classified" on documents, and then hiding behind laws that keep Australians in the dark.

"We may not be living in a police state, but we are living in a state of secrecy," he said. "The package of law changes that we are seeking will put a stop to the creeping secrecy that shrouds Canberra."

Various media chiefs described a culture of "intimidation and secrecy" having a "chilling effect" on legitimate public interest journalism.

The hearing comes after Australian Federal Police raids on the Canberra home of a News Corp journalist and the Sydney office of public broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corp. over separate investigations into government leaks.

The raids were widely condemned as heavy-handed and for having a restrictive effect on reporting.

"We're here to talk about laws — old and new laws — being used to unreasonably and unnecessarily inhibit the media," Hugh Marks, chief executive of commercial television network Channel 9, told the hearing. "Issues of national security are clearly important, but so is truth."

On Wednesday, the committee will hear from law enforcement officials and intelligence agencies, including the Australian Federal Police.