Friday, December 02, 2005

CenSSorship and SSedition

We're just a bunch of nellies worried that our caring and patronising governement would abuse the terror laws, right? Nothing untoward would happen here under the guise of censored sedition, would it? Too right it would, as Richard Ackland reminds us in today's Herald, governments of all stripes cannot be entrusted with such unchecked power:
We are entering an era of uncertainty about what can and can't be published. That uncertainty will have the inevitable consequence of stifling the reporting of statements critical of the Government's war policy that could, in the hands of a zealous prosecutor, be seen as giving comfort to the enemy.

We could do well to remember what has happened in other daunting times so we can better understand what lies ahead.

Uncertainty, oppression and a throttled press have been features of our wartime history - and there can be little doubt we are in a war climate now. Not a conventional war, by any means, but a war on terrorism, or a campaign against violent extremism, as it has been rebadged in the US. George Bush calls himself a wartime president and our own leader loves to be in the frame against a sea of khaki. Certainly, the extraordinary powers the anti-terrorism legislation gives the police and security agencies are pitched by the Government as part of the armoury to fight a war, especially against home-grown jihadists.

Wartime governments say sweeping legislation is vital for the protection of the community and the country, yet frequently it has been used to harass political opponents.

Billy Hughes, as prime minister in 1917, during the conscription campaign, used wartime powers to stop the printing of Hansard in Queensland because the state's premier, T.J. Ryan, had made a speech critical of Hughes and conscription. This had more to do with protecting the prime minister's political position than protecting the nation at war.

One of the great journalistic beefs during World War I was that the censors were soldiers who had been deemed unfit for active service, and that they didn't understand the imperatives of the news media. When, in World War II, the censors were largely ex-journalists, things were no better. A department of information, under Arthur Calwell, had the power to censor the media, issue propaganda and ensure the maintenance of "public morale". The leading newspaper man of the time, Keith Murdoch, was appointed director-general of information and the government gave him the authority to control the content of press and radio news. Murdoch was said to be the editor-in-chief of every media outlet in Australia.

On April 16, 1944, The Sunday Telegraph was seized by the government's security agents because it refused to remove blank spaces in the paper that showed the extent of material cut by the censor.

Again, the censored material had nothing to do with the war effort or the fighting troops or the security of the nation. It was a statement by the head of the newspaper publishers' association, R.A.G. Henderson, who argued that the department of information was abusing its powers by censoring news about tram strikes, miners' strikes and even statements in the NSW Legislative Assembly that were critical of the Commonwealth government.

Later in the 1940s, the Cold War atmosphere led to the Labor government prosecuting and jailing two members of the Communist Party, Lance Sharkey and Gilbert Burns, who had made pro-Soviet remarks.

If history is any guide, there is no guarantee this Government won't use the new security laws for political ends.


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