Koori History Newspaper Archive

Journo fury at Aboriginal press curbs

20th March, 2008
Author: James Madden

AWARD-WINNING journalist Paul Toohey has handed back his prestigious Walkley Award to protest against a push by the journalists' union to make media representatives outline their intentions to authorities before being granted access to Aboriginal communities.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, led by federal secretary Christopher Warren, last week released an additional "code of conduct" for journalists entering and reporting on Aboriginal communities. It calls for reporters to contact "police and council at the first opportunity and inform them what they intend doing in the community". Toohey, who was named Australian Journalist of the Year in 2000 for his reporting from northern Australia and won a Walkley Award in 2002 for a magazine article on petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities, said yesterday that the MEAA "was now actively working against media freedom in favour of what it mistakenly believes are the interests of Aborigines".

"It shows, surprisingly, a profound ignorance of how journalists work. And of how Aboriginal communities work," said Toohey, The Australian's chief Darwin correspondent.

"Would the MEAA suggest to correspondents in China that they should first consult authorities before seeking out Tibetan dissidents? What if the journalist wants to do a story about the local police, or corruption in the local council? Since when does the independent media announce its intentions to the state?"

Central Australian Aboriginal Labor politician Alison Anderson yesterday described the MEAA's proposed "code of conduct" as a sham.

Ms Anderson, who favours the removal of the permit system for Aboriginal communities because she believes it works towards shielding predators and exposes women and children to abuse, said the code was "absurd". "Communities have to be opened up like every other town. And we have to be treated like equals. Journalists don't ask police in country Victoria for permission to speak to someone in that town," Ms Anderson said. The MEAA, which runs the Walkley Awards, developed this revised code of conduct for journalists following the Rudd Government's decision to wind back the previous government's changes to the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, which would have seen Northern Territory communities open to all comers.

The Rudd Government has reinstated the permit system so communities will remain closed. The only exception to the new rule is that government workers and journalists would not need permits.

"The Government thinks the media should be grateful for this, but anyone who takes a broader view must have genuine concerns that communities will remain secretive, steel-trap worlds," Toohey said. "Instead of taking the sensible course and replying that it would suffice for journalists to adhere to its existing 12-point code of ethics - which outlines how journalists should act with honesty, fairness, independence and show respect for the rights of others - the MEAA's response was to come up with new ways to restrict journalists going about their business."

But Mr Warren said the proposed code was meant to be "situational, and attempts to take into account the particular cultural sensitivities presented when operating on Aboriginal land".

In a letter to The Australian, Mr Warren writes: "In our experience - and that of our colleagues on the ground in the Northern Territory - to consult with local authorities before entering indigenous communities is an expedient which can usually help, rather than hinder, the reporter in the performance of his or her duties."

The permit system has caused difficulties for Toohey in the past.

In October 2002, he travelled to Wadeye, about 400km south of Darwin, after a young Aboriginal man had been shot dead by a policeman.

Toohey was the first journalist to report on the killing and the gangs of Wadeye, and went to the community after becoming aware of a planned heavy police presence on the day of the victim's funeral.

Toohey applied for a permit to enter the community. He was unable to secure one but made the long journey anyway. Police at the community arrested and detained Toohey and fingerprinted him, and he was charged and prosecuted for infringing the laws governing access to Aboriginal land.

In the Darwin courts, magistrate David Loadman found Toohey guilty but did not convict or fine him. The DPP appealed, and a conviction was recorded. Ultimately, the Territory's Court of Criminal Appeal reinstated the magistrate's ruling.

Ms Anderson opposed any restrictions on journalists' access to communities. "There has to be no scrutiny on journalists. They have to be able to drive in, do their job and get out. This is just another hindering factor which is closing the communities up to abuse and lack of transparency," she said.

Toohey said last night he had sent his 2002 Walkley Award to Mr Warren's office in Sydney in protest at the MEAA's proposal.