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Australia, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press

The free flow of information is a vital characteristic of a free society. There is a strong correlation between freedom of speech and a free press, and individual freedom and prosperity.

But the “public’s right to know” has never been without limits.

For example, the public has no right to know the content of your private conversations with family and friends.

It may not be in the public interest for the public to be fully aware of matters relating to national security. Not every member of the public, nor every member of the press, has Australia’s best interests at heart.

Where there are sensitive negotiations with foreign powers over trade or border issues, it may seriously undermine those efforts, and the welfare of all Australians, if details of Australia’s strategies and bargaining positions are made known.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade routinely prepares reports on foreign leaders and governments, which may list personal interests and weaknesses, and potential risks. It is important that these reports be fact-based and forthright. But it may damage relationships if they were to be made public.

Matters which are commercial-in-confidence are also protected. Like governments, businesses must make assessments of competing interests, and develop acquisition and marketing strategies. It would undermine their future viability, their ability to provide employment to Australian men and women, and their returns to shareholders (in many cases superannuation funds providing support and security to ordinary working people) if those confidences were to be betrayed.

As one further example, it is well-established that the public’s right to know does not extend to personal details, names and addresses of victims and witnesses in some criminal trials.

Being a journalist does not mean an exemption from rules which protect Australia’s national security. Nor does it mean journalists are exempt from laws relating to defamation, trespass, contempt of court or border violations.