Are our media freedoms under attack?

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties is deeply concerned by the escalation in legal sanctions faced by journalists in the course of their work, as highlighted by the recent high profile Friendlyjordies case.

Friendlyjordies, or Jordan Shanks-Markovina, is a well known YouTuber and online commentator. In a number of videos, Shanks-Markovina is deeply critical of the Deputy Premier, John Barliaro, leading to a defamation case over two videos that John Barilaro alleged were part of a smear campaign against him. 

In itself, this was troubling enough: a politician in an uncomfortable position may find that a defamation case provides a convenient shield against having to answer any further awkward questions. Meanwhile, defending such cases can be an extremely costly and time-consuming exercise, giving publications significant pause for thought before publishing strong critiques of people who might be inclined to sue. (For more, see NSWCCL on politicians and defamation).

But what came next was extraordinary.

The arrest

Prompted by a complaint to police by Barilaro, Friendlyjordies producer Kristo Langker was arrested by the NSW Fixated Persons Investigations Unit (FPIU) and charged with stalking Barilaro.

The use of the FPIU, created in 2017 to identify potentially vulnerable people who may be at risk of exposure to extremist material and counter lone wolf attacks by “fixated” people, was deeply inappropriate  given the nature of the alleged offending and the character of the alleged offender. It has been broadly criticised in the media, including by former NSW DPP and NSWCCL Committee member Nicholas Cowdery in the Guardian.

The public reaction was such that, within a few weeks, law firm Xenophon Davis announced that it had crowd sourced $1m for the Friendlyjordies legal defence. 

Whether or not this is the case – and NSWCCL makes no comment in this regard – many in the public felt that the use of this unit, and the nature of the arrest, could be attributed to behind-the-scenes actions by the Deputy Premier. Serious questions ought to be asked about why the unit was used in these circumstances.

As troubling as it was, the Friendlyjordies arrest wasn't an isolated incident. On the contrary, heavy-handed policing of journalists appears to be the new normal, with the NSWCCL concerned over incidents including:

Meanwhile, whistleblowers from Witness K to Richard Boyle have faced criminal prosecution for raising legitimate concerns, further eroding confidence in the protection of our fundamental freedoms.

These developments underline the need for a bill of rights, something we've been advocating for decades, most recently under the auspices of the Human Right Act for NSW campaign.

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