Did you know that there is a Federal Inquiry into Freedom of Speech in Australia? This was announced by the government last year after a case from Queensland failed under section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The terms of reference of the inquiry, rather than focusing on the serious threats to freedom of expression in Australia like our secrecy laws, looks at whether protections under the Racial Discrimination Act should be amended or repealed, and the Human Rights Commission’s role in conciliating these claims.
Amnesty International made a submission to the Inquiry on 23 December 2016, making a number of recommendations, including keeping current protections in the Racial Discrimination Act and setting out what we need to do about the more pressing threats to freedom of expression in Australia.
What is freedom of expression?
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It is essential to, and interrelated with, the realisation and exercise of all human rights. Every human being has the right to hold opinions, receive information and express themselves freely. You can get the lowdown on freedom of expression here.
How is freedom of expression at risk here?
In the last three years the Australian government has been chipping away at our freedom of expression and access to information.
First it was our national security laws: journalists and others face significant prison terms for reporting on special intelligence operations under the ASIO Act.
Then the Border Force Act gave the government power to prosecute and imprison doctors, nurses and child welfare professionals who speak out about rights abuses in immigration detention. Now medical professionals are excluded, however other detention centre staff and service providers are still being silenced.
Under mass metadata surveillance laws, telecommunications companies are now required to store their customer’s metadata for two years and provide it to a wide range of government agencies without a warrant. That means your phone and internet records – including the numbers you dial and the emails you send and receive, the date and time – are being surveilled by numerous government departments.
Finally, governments around the country are cracking down on Australians’ right to have their say through peacefully protesting.
Does the Racial Discrimination Act threaten freedom of expression?
No. Freedom of expression has to be balanced with other human rights, like the right to live free from racial discrimination. Governments may impose some restrictions on certain forms of speech, as long as they are necessary to ensure respect for the rights of others or for the protection of certain specified public interests.
Currently, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for a person to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone publicly including through words and writing, because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin. The courts have interpreted this to be a high threshold – you can’t win a case based on “hurt feelings”, there has to be “profound and serious effects”. We think the courts have got the balance right.
Why is it important to protect people from racial hatred?
Racism has serious consequences.
Racism impacts upon health, particularly mental health and suicide rates, as well as school attendance, reduced productivity in the workplace, and social and economic participation. A high profile example was when footballer Adam Goodes had to take time off to recover from the racism he experienced.
With many people living in Australia experiencing racial discrimination, mainly through racist verbal abuse, and three out of four Indigenous people regularly experiencing racism – the stakes for amending section 18C are high. Amending the RDA may expose vulnerable communities to further harm.
What did Amnesty International’s submission say?
Amnesty International recommends that the Federal Government improve freedom of expression by amending laws to protect whistleblowers and media on national security issues and immigration detention concerns, as well as requiring a warrant for the release of metadata, and to work with States and Territories to ensure that the right to peaceful assembly is protected.
In the submission, we noted that the way courts have interpreted sections 18C and 18D of the RDA strike the balance well by protecting our freedom of expression as well as protecting people from racial hatred. The courts have done so for over 20 years.
We recommended that Australia move towards a Human Rights Act where competing human rights such as these can be clearly balanced through a legislative framework.
We also recommended that the Australian Human Rights Commission continues to maintain a fair and effective complaints resolution process and human rights education for people who experience discrimination or vilification.
Finally, we recommended that all political party leaders work together to set the standard of respect for culturally and linguistically diverse groups in Australia.
What can you do?
Talk to your friends and family about this important issue, why the RDA is so important, and why Australia needs to lift it’s game on protecting freedom of expression by reforming secrecy and surveillance laws.
Let these key members of the Committee conducting the inquiry know that freedom of speech and the Racial Discrimination Act are important to you:
What happens next?
Amnesty will give evidence to this inquiry at hearings in Sydney at 11am AEST on 1st February 2017. Tune in here to listen and please tweet your thoughts to help us put the pressure on.
The Committee is then due to report by 28 February 2017. After that the Government will decide whether or not to pursue legislative or policy changes.
We’ll keep you updated as the situation develops.