Raided, Detained, Cancelled: A conversation series exploring ways journalists can be silenced

Raided, Detained, Cancelled: A conversation series exploring ways journalists can be silenced

Kym Middleton, Events Manager, introduces a new live online series from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

When Journalist Okke Ornstein was pardoned and released from a dilapidated prison in Panama, he left the country he had called home for 17 years. “It was a difficult decision because of friends and family,” he said. "But they let me out then, and I thought, okay, they’re letting me go now, but what about next time?”

Okke, who ran a news website called Bananama Republic and worked with Al Jazeera and Dutch public broadcaster NTR, was incarcerated as a result of a conviction for defamation.
He had written about business and government fraud around the same time the Panama Papers revealed the country to be a tax haven. "There are all these popular expressions in Panama, one being that when the US invaded in 1989, they took Ali Baba and left the 40 thieves," he said. "My arrest was final confirmation that Panama protects the corrupt."

Like other journalists who have been detained doing their job, Okke continued working upon release – just not in Panama. It raises the question: does jailing journalists silence the press, or embolden them? This question will be asked in a live, online conversation on Thursday, 18th November with journalists who were imprisoned for their work, including Okke. The free event is part of a digital series from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, called Raided, Detained, Cancelled. Each episode explores the different ways journalists can be silenced.

In 2019, the home of Annika Smethurst was raided by the Australian Federal Police in connection with a story she published a year earlier for her former employer, The Daily Telegraph. The story was about government plans to increase the powers of the Australian Signals Directorate, so it could eavesdrop on Australian citizens without warrants.

Annika spoke about this experience in Raided on 11th November. She was joined by Dennis Richardson, who has led some of Australia’s most important intelligence and national security agencies, including the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Department of Defence, and who, last year, led a review into Australia’s national security legal frameworks.

The pair explored the balance between a government’s duty to keep its citizens safe, and a journalist’s responsibility to hold power to account. Both Dennis and Annika agreed some "tension" between journalists and government organisations was "healthy".

But they had different views on whether journalists should be provided with greater legal protection to do their job. "I think some more certainty for journalists – and that would come in legislation – would be great, because, at the moment, there’s just not that guarantee that you won’t be chased and end up in court," Smethurst said.
Dennis cautioned against this: "I think the media needs to be careful when it wants more legislation and more certainty. The parliament cannot provide the certainty that everyone demands," he said. He also noted Australia had introduced 124 pieces of national security legislation since September 11, labelling it a "dog’s breakfast."

For journalists in countries with authoritarian governments, the situation is very different. As Okke Ornstein discovered in Panama, there are now legal protections for journalists. It was the same for Nathan Maung in Myanmar. Both will share their stories in the Detained session on Thursday, 18th November.

Nathan's office was raided by Myanmar’s armed military junta in March. He was arrested and jailed alongside his colleague, Han Thar Nyein, in Yangon’s Insein Prison. Like Danny Fenster, who was released from this same jail earlier this week, Burmese-born Nathan is an American citizen. This led to his release and deportation back to the United States, but his colleague remains incarcerated.

It is not always governments that want to stop a story from getting out. Sometimes it is a journalist’s peers, or even their audience, that try to silence them by pressuring them to not publish or even campaigning for them to lose their jobs.

Whether you call it mob justice, censorship from society, call out or cancel culture, it is something Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig says he has contended with in various ways over 50 years working for mastheads. Most recently, Michael lost his weekly political cartoon slot with The Age after drawing cartoons that questioned cancel culture, and cartoons that were seen as anti-vaccination.

Michael will join the final episode of the series Cancelled on 25th November.

Words submitted by Kym Middleton, Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

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