Your right to know: Media bosses want politicians' power to sign off on prosecutions removed

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter during Question Time on Tuesday. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter during Question Time on Tuesday. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

Australia's major media outlets have called for Attorney-General Christian Porter's new power to sign off on the prosecution of journalists for exposing government secrets to be revoked, after Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared such decisions should not be "made on the whim of politicians".

The Right to Know Coalition wrote to MPs and senators on Tuesday, after Mr Morrison told question time on Monday he would not rule out pursuing ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clarke and News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst over the publication of classified documents.

"I do not believe that those decisions about who should be prosecuted at the end of the day should be made on the whim of politicians - I think they should be made based on the rule of law and the proper assessment of appropriately constituted law enforcement agencies," Mr Morrison said.

But the comments came a month after Mr Porter ordered prosecutors not to charge journalists under Australia's secrecy laws without his approval.

The letter, from nearly 20 organisations including Australian Community Media, said jailing journalists "should not be dependent on the subjective assessment or good graces of any individual politician".

"Like the Prime Minister we do not believe an individual politician should be placed in the dangerous position of being the final arbiter on whether or not a person should be prosecuted," it reads.

"We believe that laws that put a politician in this compromising position should be amended so this situation does not arise."

The Right To Know coalition is calling for changes to better protect public sector whistleblowers.

It also wants a new regime that limits which documents can be stamped secret, a properly functioning freedom of information scheme and defamation law reform.

Media bosses want the right to contest the application of warrants for journalists and media organisations, and exemptions for journalists from laws that would jail them for doing their job

Media outlets also struck out at attempts to characterise reforms as "blanket exemptions" for journalists.

"We are asking for common sense changes to laws so that like politicians the unique role journalists have in serving society is acknowledged," the letter said.

"The reason we are in this situation is that government has passed laws that have made the ordinary work of journalists to keep the public informed a crime. In recent years governments has passed too many laws that favour secrecy over openness. They are at odds with the expectation that we live in an open and transparent society.

"When you gather in parliament you are above the law - you have the right to say anything with the protection of parliamentary privilege. This special circumstance allows you to have the open debates that are so important to democracy. Journalism's role in reporting the working of democracy to the public is also a special circumstance."

Australian Community Media is the publisher of this newspaper.