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Restrictions lifted on coverage of UNSW student elections

Despite the new freedoms, Tharunka articles could still be censored for "any reason"

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Tharunka, the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) student newspaper, will finally be allowed to cover student elections after years of being effectively gagged under the Tharunka Charter.

Tharunka is funded by Arc @ UNSW (Arc), which is run by a student board, and houses an elected undergraduate (SRC) and postgraduate (PGC) student representative council as well as the commercial and student support operations at UNSW.

On 30th September, the Arc Board approved changes to the Charter which allow for political coverage in Tharunka on the SRC, PGC, and Arc Board election. These changes have replaced the controversial clauses 2.11.1 and 2.12 in the previous Charter, which have, in the past, been invoked by the Board to stifle election coverage.

Clause 2.12 stated, “representations/images of candidates for any of the Arc elections shall not be included in Tharunka in the four weeks leading up to [elections]”.

Clause 2.11.1 stated that election coverage was to be curated by Arc marketing. The Board has historically interpreted the clause to mean handing editorial control and oversight of election content to the organisation’s marketing department.

It was mandated that candidates be given equal word counts and coverage, leading to the prohibition of ‘news’ articles describing any actions of individual campaigns. If interviewing candidates in person, editors were not permitted to ask follow-up questions. This had the practical effect of disallowing editors to press candidates to faithfully disclose their political affiliations.

The amended section allows Tharunka to report on student elections, subject to the requirement that all articles be submitted for approval to Arc Legal and, where appropriate, the Returning Officer. Notably, the current changes also preserve Arc’s right to “withhold approval for any reason.”

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Alicia D’Arcy, last year’s Features Sub-Editor, stated she was “pleased to see Arc has made these important changes to the Tharunka Charter meaning Arc Board and SRC elections are more democratic.”

In 2017, D’Arcy, with the support of then-SRC Councillor Toby Walmsey, advocated for changing controversial clauses in the Charter. D’Arcy prepared for the Board’s review a list of suggested changes, including the stipulation that articles should only be removed or censored when they do not comply with usual legal obligations.

“I don’t think it’s good that the reasons for which a Returning Officer would censor information are not stipulated. It is possible they might censor … information that would otherwise be in the interests of voters to know.”

It is unusual that despite giving Tharunka the new freedoms, the final clause regarding censorship for “any reason” was introduced. The clause lends itself to broad interpretations, that may have the effect of compromising Tharunka’s ability to publish accurate political news.

At the University of Sydney, the SRC’s regulations state that Honi Soit’s political coverage may only be censored if it is used to directly promote a candidate, unless “endorsed by Council”.

Honi understands candidates for this year’s SRC election were allegedly given a three-day notice for interviews after changes were approved at Board. The current editorial team conducted interviews at the end of last week, with responses likely to be published in the coming days.