A media lawyer has warned on the chilling effect on journalists’ sources of a landmark court ruling.
A media lawyer has warned on the chilling effect on journalists’ sources of a landmark court ruling.

‘Chilling’: Court ruling a threat to journalism

Journalists will be compelled to reveal their sources in coercive hearings after a landmark decision handed down by the Brisbane Supreme Court found the press had no protection from the state's corruption watchdog.

The decision, published this week, concerned a case involving the Crime and Corruption Commission and a Queensland journalist, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

It comes as new laws recommended by the CCC are introduced to State Parliament to prevent media reporting of corruption claims during election campaigns.

This week's finding by Justice David Jackson came after the TV journalist, referred to in the judgment as F, refused to answer questions during a commission hearing.

The CCC hearing was held as part of a corruption investigation into the alleged leaking of information relating to a counter-terrorism raid, surveillance equipment and a murder.

A police officer has been charged in relation to the investigation.

During the star-chamber hearing, the journalist claimed privilege and refused to answer questions on the grounds of public interest immunity, the judgment said.

Journalist F later brought an application in the Brisbane Supreme Court to decide whether they were entitled to claim privilege on this basis.

The news network also argued the legislation, which compelled journalist F to appear in the hearing, was at odds with the constitutional right to freedom of communication.

But the court yesterday dismissed the application on all grounds.

Justice David Jackson
Justice David Jackson

As a result of the finding, the television journalist could be forced to return to a coercive hearing and asked to reveal their confidential source after an injunction to restrain the CCC from further questioning them was also refused by the court.

The Supreme Court decision means journalists who refuse to give up their confidential sources could be jailed if charged for contempt.

The decision has outraged media lawyers who say while it is the correct interpretation of the legislative powers given to the CCC to investigate corruption, it goes to the heart of the free press.

"The practical effect is that a journalist who refuses to answer questions by the CCC that would identify a confidential source is at risk of a hefty penalty, including imprisonment," said solicitor Sophie Robertson, from Bartley Cohen.

"The well-recognised and important public interest in confidentiality of journalists' sources does not apply to CCC investigations.

"It's an issue that goes to the heart of freedom of expression".

Media lawyer Justin Quill said the "decision will send a chill down the spine of all journalists. But it should also send a chill down the spine of every member of the public".

"Why should a journalist face criminal charges for just doing their job - a job that benefits the community," he said.

Mr Quill said laws such as this also had the potential to scare off potential sources, or discourage media organisations from reporting details about corruption and other important matters.

"That is not in the public interest," he said.

"The law needs to change. Journalists need more protection."

Media lawyer Justin Quill
Media lawyer Justin Quill

The judgment explained journalist F in 2018 allegedly received information from an unnamed source and sent a television news reporter and cameraman to an address.

The news network later filmed the arrest of a person at the same property, the judgment said.

The CCC conducted the hearings as part of an investigation to determine whether police disclosed information "without lawful authority" or engaged in "corrupt conduct".

Journalist F was, as part of the investigation, called to a star-chamber hearing and asked of their knowledge of a criminal police investigation relating to the murder of "a named person" and their knowledge of a joint counter-terrorism team investigation into "the alleged terrorist activities of another named person".

Journalist F was asked of their knowledge of the attendance of the news outlet at the address, the decision said.

They were asked questions including the name of the police officer who asked the news network to attend the address, who said there were listening devices at a house and who said there was an impending arrest at the address.

Journalist F refused to answer all questions, the judgment said.

Justice Jackson found the claim of "so-called" privilege against revealing confidential sources was "not within the concept of public interest immunity … because it is not an immunity from production of a governmental document or communication and it is not an objection taken by an arm of the executive".

" … it is not unfair to ask the sources of information questions because to do so will breach a journalist's obligation of confidence, absent other factors," he said.

Journalist F had also argued the investigation was being conducted unfairly and said because a police officer had already been charged with offences in relation to the investigation there was "no utility in requiring the applicant to answer the sources of information questions".

The court did not accept these arguments.

Originally published as 'Chilling': Court ruling a threat to journalism

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