Insult to injury for journalists on World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day happens on May 3rd every year

As if things could get any worse for the state of international journalism, World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) last Wednesday was marred by Fairfax Media group moving to cull 125 editorial jobs — more than a quarter of its Australian newsroom.

The week leading up to this year’s WPFD included revelations that the Australian Federal Police had illegally accessed a journalist’s metadata (without revealing who or why), a rejection by Treasury of all applications made by student media outlets to attend next week’s Budget Lock-up, a report released by US researcher CareerCast ranking the professions of news reporters and broadcasters among the lowest paid and most stressful jobs of 2017, and of course — Donald Trump continuing to be Donald Trump and boycotting the White House Press Correspondents Dinner.

Then, on what should have been a day of solidarity for the harried industry,  Fairfax management topped it off with another massive round of job cuts at their masthead newspapers.

The cuts are part of a five-year-long assault on the company’s editorial staff to maintain the media giant’s bottom line. And jobs aren’t the only thing being slashed.

The $30 million restructure comes with a new editorial direction at Fairfax that touts “the merits of market-based solutions”, severing the media group’s right to its already debatable tagline of ‘Independent. Always.’

Plainly and wholly justified, the resultant editorial walkout will run for an unprecedented seven days. The longest Fairfax strike since 1995 will leave only a skeleton crew of reporters at this year’s budget.

“To strike during the budget really hits at the core of our responsibility to public information,” said Federal political reporter and USyd alumni Eryk Bagshaw, “which shows how much we care and how wounded we really are.”

Next Tuesday’s budget release is set to be one the media events of the year, with the Coalition Government flagging big changes to education funding, including an increase in uni fees of 7.5 per cent and a reduction in the income threshold for HECS repayments to $42,000 a year.

The absence of Fairfax journalists, combined with the exclusion of the country’s entire university press, means first-hand oppositional coverage of such a crucial political event will take a big hit this year.

A treasury spokesperson said this year’s release was open to “professional news publications only”, which of course rules out any real oppositional voices inside the lock-up.

In a report released last week entitled ‘The Chilling Effect’, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance decried an outright attack on press freedom by Australia’s legal and political system.

“Such is the nature of press freedom’s political battleground in Australia: lots of talk about freedom of speech in the midst of an actual legislated assault on press freedom,” writes CEO Paul Murphy.

Even with a legal framework for curbing journalistic independence that now includes police access to Journalist Information Warrants, the AFP, as if to say, “oh yeah, we can”, has admitted to accessing a journo’s metadata illegally.

“It’s absolutely the most disgusting overreach of police powers,” said Bagshaw.

“Who knows what happens in fifty years-time with these metadata laws — you’ll have no personal privacy and journos will have no sources,” he said. “Because the fact is I now can’t tell my sources with absolute confidence that they’ll remain anonymous.”

Less freedom from police spying, less access for student press, less independence for Fairfax journalists, and now, to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, 125 less reporters at work around Australia.

Now that’s plain insulting.