Dutton directive gives journalists more breathing space, but not whistleblowers



Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton appears to have backed down from his previous hardline position on AFP raids and press freedom.
AAP/Sam Mooy

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

In light of the ministerial direction issued to the Australian Federal Police by the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on August 9, it would be a spectacular contradiction in policy if the Australian Federal Police’s current pursuit of journalists were to end in prosecutions.




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The direction stated in part:

I expect the AFP to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society and to consider broader public interest implications before undertaking investigative action involving a professional journalist or news media organisation in relation to unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.

So much for the uncompromising stance of Dutton and the then acting commissioner of the AFP, Neil Gaughan, that the law was the law, and if journalists broke it they could expect to be prosecuted like anyone else.

The political sensitivity of this climb-down may be gauged from the fact the direction was issued at 4pm on a Friday.

A combination of early deadlines for the Saturday papers, the incapacity of television to pull together a comprehensive story in time for the evening bulletins, and the dead air of the weekend make late Friday the preferred time of the week to drop bad or embarrassing news.

Dutton’s announcement was bereft of explanation. However, events since the AFP raids on the home of a News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst, and on the ABC headquarters on June 5 and 6 respectively give a hint of the likely reason.

First, there was the international condemnation across the Western world of the repressive nature of the police raids, expressed in a tone of disbelief that this could be happening in a mature democracy.

Then there was the unified response from the heads of Australia’s three main news organisations, the ABC, News Corporation and Nine. Their message, delivered in a nationally televised broadcast from the National Press Club on June 26, was that a government obsessed with secrecy had now gone so far as to criminalise journalism.

There was also the statement by the Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter, that he was “seriously disinclined” to prosecute journalists for doing journalism. His consent is needed for any such prosecution.

Faced with international condemnation, pressure from the media and the potential for a major row in Cabinet between Dutton and Porter, the government then tried to take the sting out of the situation by setting up an inquiry into press freedom.

Bizarrely, this is being conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), the very body that has waved through most of these repressive laws in the first place.

The inquiry has generated a body of strongly worded submissions arguing for the balance between press freedom and government secrecy to be struck in a way that is more consistent with democratic principles.

It begins its public hearings this week.

So Dutton’s ministerial direction may be seen as having two objectives: heading off a potentially damaging split in cabinet, and accomplishing a preemptive buckle before the parliamentary inquiry calls him and outgoing AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, to give an account of themselves.

Of course, as far as anyone knows, the AFP investigations are still on foot. Already officers have removed thousands of records from the ABC, accumulated travel data concerning two ABC journalists and requested their fingerprints, as well as turning Annika Smethurst’s home upside-down.

So the government’s intimidatory tactics have had a good run already, even if prosecutions do not follow.

There is nothing to stop the police from completing these investigations and providing a brief of evidence for Porter. However, given his stated position, allied with the new political dynamics created by the reaction to the raids and Dutton’s directive, it seems unlikely prosecutions will follow.

While the ministerial direction represents a genuflection in the direction of press freedom, it provides nothing by way of protection for whistleblowers.

The direction says it

does not constrain investigation by the AFP of unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.

So it seems the pursuit of whistleblowers – the people who provide journalists with leaked information – can continue unabated. They still have only a demonstrably useless law – the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 – offering a fig leaf of protection.

The present prosecutions of Richard Boyle (Tax Office) and David McBride (Defence) attest to this.

The last paragraph of Dutton’s directive deals with the process by which government departments or agencies refer leaks to the AFP, and the AFP then assesses for investigative possibilities.




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This entire reference and assessment process has been shot through with politics, either at the departmental end or the police end, or both.

That is why the ABC and Smethurst leaks – neither of which had much to do with national security but were acutely embarrassing to the government – were subject to police action.

By contrast, a leak to The Australian about the alleged security effects of the medevac legislation, which the head of ASIO Duncan Lewis publicly complained was a real threat to national security, was not subject to police action because it played into the hands of the government’s scare campaign about people-smuggling.

Dutton’s direction says:

I expect the AFP to strengthen its guidance and processes about the types and level of information required from a Government department or agency when they are referring to an unauthorised disclosure. Referring departments or agencies will need to provide a harm statement indicating the extent to which the disclosure is expected to significantly compromise Australia’s national security.

If the direction is to be taken as meaning only leaks significantly compromising national security are to be referred to the police, then there may be a larger safe space within which journalists can operate.

But the hunt for whistleblowers will go on.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say


Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Religious Club Closures in Schools Touch Nerve in Malaysia


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 11 (CDN) — More closures of non-Muslim religious clubs in Malaysian schools, including Christian fellowships, have surfaced since the first incident was reported on July 12.

Loh Seng Kok, central committee member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said at a July 23 press conference that the situation was “getting worse” and that the initial incident at Klang High School was not an “isolated issue.”

Loh based his assessment on complaints received by various religious society representatives. Present with Loh at the press conference were Vice-President of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia Loh Yit Phing, President of the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association Chim Siew Choon and Executive Secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia Tan Kong Beng.

The Malaysian Insider online news agency reported that Chin Fook Khiang, a parent, disclosed that the Buddhist Society and Christian Fellowship in SMK SS17 in Subang Jaya, Selangor were ordered to stop activities in January 2009 – and that it was the second time the clubs were ordered to close by education authorities since 2005.

The religious clubs were closed even though they had been in operation since before 2000, excluding them from the need for official approval. According to Circular Bill 20/2000, non-Muslim religious clubs formed after education authorities issued the circular in 2000 must obtain their approval before they are allowed. Clubs that existed before the circular was issued do not require approval.

Malaysiakini news agency on July 23 cited an unnamed retired teacher who described the situation as “very serious,” to the extent that some teachers had been transferred because they were active in Christian fellowship activities in their schools.

Loh called for a fairer treatment of non-Muslim associations in the co-curricular activities listed in the co-curriculum management guidelines issued to schools. The guidelines only allow for Islamic religious societies to operate unconditionally without requiring prior approval from the education authorities.

Several political leaders, including veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, have called on authorities to revoke outdated directives and circulars that contravene the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

 

Public Outcry

Reports of non-Muslim religious club closures first surfaced when The Sun reported on July 12 that three non-Muslim religious student groups, including the Christian Union at Klang High School, were ordered closed by the Selangor education department last month.

Following the report, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Philips, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), issued a strongly worded statement seeking “immediate confirmation” and “prompt explanation” from authorities.

“Needless to say,” Phillips added, “if indeed there had been such a directive to close non-Muslim religious societies in schools or to not permit the setting up of such societies in schools, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of National Unity should not be in doubt that MCCBCHST shall protest such a policy with the strongest possible vehemence.”

Following public outcry over the closure, Alimuddin Dom, director-general of education, reportedly said that the directive was a “misunderstanding” by the Selangor Education Department and ordered a reinstatement of the affected religious clubs.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.

 

Church Attack Trial

Reports of the religious club closures came amid the trial of three men who have been charged with arson in the attack on Metro Tabernacle church’s building earlier this year.

Brothers Raja Muhammad Faizal Raja Ibrahim and Raja Muhammad Idzham Raja Ibrahim, along with their friend Azuwan Shah Ahmad, were charged with committing mischief by torching the church building at 11:50 p.m. on Jan. 7. Since the trial started on July 6, however, the court has acquitted Azuwan due to lack of evidence.

Both brothers deny burning the church building, though they admit to witnessing the incident. They claim they left the scene of the burning to attend a barbeque at a friend’s house. Raja Muhammad Faizal claims he sustained burns from starting a fire at the barbeque, while his brother Raja Muhammad Idzham says he was injured in the course of helping his brother take off his flaming shirt on the occasion.  

The trial is ongoing.

Metro Tabernacle Church was among several churches that came under attack in January following a controversial court ruling that allowed the Herald, a Catholic weekly, to use the word “Allah” in the multilingual publication. The Herald had challenged the ban imposed by the Home Ministry.

The court decision angered some Muslims in the country who claim the term is exclusive to Islam.

Following the high court decision, the Home Ministry filed an appeal in February and won a stay, preventing the weekly from using the word until the case was addressed in the court of appeal. To date there has been no indication when the case will be heard.

On Aug. 1, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was widely reported as saying his predecessor, Syed Hamid Albar, should not have banned the word “Allah” from being used by the Roman Catholic Church, and that the decision will continue to haunt his ministry for a very long time.

Report from Compass Direct News

Chinese house church forced to worship in the snow


A few months ago, ChinaAid Association learned that the Chinese government had targeted six house churches to be shut down. A week ago, that directive was made evident, reports MNN.

On October 29, 2009, the long-respected Shouwang House Church was denied renewal of its rental contract for office space in Huagie Plaza. It was discovered that the managers had been pressured by both the Public Security Bureau and the Religious Affairs Bureau of Beijing City not to renew the lease.

Since the church no longer had a place to worship, they held their service outside in the snow, joyfully singing to the Lord despite the poor circumstances. Between 800 and 1000 believers showed up for the service. Government officials attempted to stop this meeting, as well, by closing the park in which the service would be held, but the service continued.

This is not the first time the Shouwang House Church has experienced persecution. The church was originally evicted from its location in April and forced to worship outside all summer. Although it may have been not so bad to hold services in the summer weather, the increasingly cold weather is not inviting.

The more troubling issues lie in the fact that the Chinese government is actively shutting down house churches. Christian persecution continues to grow in China; thankfully, so does the church.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

‘LEGAL’ PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS IN EU CONTINUES


Christian lobbyists in the UK are calling a pending EU directive that would introduce a policy similar to Britain’s Sexual Orientation Regulations to all member states, a “threat to religious freedom.” Pro-family activists fear that the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected grounds for discrimination may leave European Christians and others vulnerable to legal actions, reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

The proposed directive aims to outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods and services and may also outlaw ‘harassment.’

Critics have also said that the directive would mean that countries which legally recognise same-sex civil partnerships would be required to expand their provisions to include homosexual adoption. It is also feared that the directive’s definition of harassment is so broad that even explanations of Christian beliefs on sexual conduct or those of other religions like Islam, could fall foul of the law.

In April 2008, the BBC reported that the directive had been “shelved.” Jan Jarab of the Employment Department of the Commission told the BBC that “signals” from some member states indicated that there would not be the required unanimous consent on a blanket anti-discrimination law that would include “sexual orientation.”

In May 2008, however, the European Parliament issued a memo reminding MEPs of the “commitment to put forward a comprehensive directive covering disability, age, religion or belief and sexual orientation.”

Accordingly, the EU Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) last week voted to approve the final version of its report on the issue. This will now go to the EU Parliament for a vote in early April on whether to adopt the report as its own recommendations on the directive. Power to enact, amend or reject the directive lies with the Council of the European Union, a body composed of government representatives from each of the 27 member states.

The Christian Institute, the UK’s most prominent Christian lobby group, argues that similar laws in the UK and other nations have caused serious erosion of religious liberty and the exclusion of Christianity from the public sphere.

The Christian Institute called the “harassment” provision one of the “most alarming” aspects of the proposed legislation. The directive defines it as the creation of an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”

(With files from the Christian Institute)

Report from the Christian Telegraph

GHANA’S PRESIDENT ORDERS SCHOOLS TO REINTRODUCE RELIGIOUS EDUCATION


President John Agyekum Kufuor of Ghana has instructed authorities of basic schools in the country to revisit the teaching of Religious and Moral Education (RME), which hitherto had been removed from the syllabus, reports Daniel Abugah, special to ASSIST News Service.

President Kufuor made the call when he addressed school children at the country’s 51st Independence Day celebration. The call was in response to persistent calls made particularly by Christians and Muslims for reintroduction of the subject in the schools’ curricular.

The president expressed displeasure about the negative moral impact of globalization on the youth through the mass media. He therefore urged the school children to balance their academic learning with that of their moral duty.

“The television, the Internet and other modern gadgetry undermine cultures and moral values. The result is that humanity is already confronted with the challenge of a serious split between knowledge and morality. Unless mankind finds a way to overcome this challenge, there is a real danger of it becoming less than human.

It is for this reason that government has decided to revisit the reinstatement of Religious and Moral Education in the school curriculum”, President Kufour told the students. He added that no matter the academic and professional acclode they achieved, the best education in the end is the one that would enable them to appreciate the common dignity of man; stand up for what is right and be each other’s keeper.

The general secretary of the Christian Council of Ghana, Rev. Dr. Fred Degbee in an interview with Radio Ghana commended the action of the president. He said religion and morality were the signal light of the world, and they should be encouraged at every level of society.

Whilst Christians and Muslims embraced the directive of the president to reintroduce the RME into the basic school’s curriculum, a traditional African religious group, the Africanian Mission, did not see the idea as good news. For them the teaching of RME would promote foreign culture at the expense of African values.

RME which was introduced into the syllabus of Upper Primary and Junior Secondary Schools (now Junior High School) some years ago, aimed to encourage the sense of moral values among school children in the country. But it was removed last year as a result of new educational reforms in the country.

Report from the Christian Telegraph