Amnesty International Freedom of Speech in Australia. By Debbie Manallack FFIT Hon
Amnesty International Talk How we are loosing our freedoms of speech in Australia. 1 Introduction - What is Amnesty International? 2 What is freedom of speech? 3 What have been the fundamental changes to our laws, which have caused concern? 4 Conclusion
On May 28 th , 1961 a London lawyer Peter Beneson read about a group of students in Portugal who were arrested and jailed for raising a toast to “freedom” in a public restaurant. This incident prompted him to launch a one year campaign called “Appeal for Amnesty 1961 in the London Observer, a local newspaper.
The “Appeal for Amnesty” called for the release of all people imprisoned because of peaceful expression of their beliefs, politics, race, religion, colour or national origin. Benenson called these people “prisoners of conscience.”
Benenson’s plan was to encourage people to write letters to government officials in countries which have prisoners of conscience, calling for their release. The campaign grew enormously, spread to other countries, and by the end of 1961 the organisation, Amnesty International had been formed. Amnesty was founded on the principle that people have fundamental rights that transcend national, cultural, religious, and ideological boundaries. It worked to obtain prompt and fair trials for all prisoners, to end torture and executions and to secure the release of prisoners of conscience.
Amnesty International defines prisoners of conscience as people who are imprisoned, solely because of their political or religious beliefs, gender, or their racial or ethnic origin, who have neither used nor advocated violence. Amnesty International’s Mandate was based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and began work immediately on writing letters for prisoners of conscience.
Patricia Loughlan, an associate professor in the faculty of law at the university of sydney states that:
“ Freedom of speech is conducive and indeed essential to the autonomy and self-fulfilment of the individuals. We are by our very nature
cognitive and communicative beings, social but nonetheless interested in ourselves as individuals, capable of engaging with the world as individuals and forming and expressing our individual views on what we find there. We cannot, on this view, fully develop our potential as individuals without the freedom to think and to speak as we please, to formulate, articulate and express our own thoughts.”
Tom Cambell states: “ Such freedom is conceived as a fundamental personal right directly attributable to the fact that all people are independently endowed with their own separate capacity for self-expression and indispensable if they are to develop their moral and intellectual capacities to the full. They should therefore be free to formulate and express their own statements on any issues which to them appears important and should be exposed to the full range of competing arguments.”
So what does this all mean? This means that I have the right to my personal, political, religious and basically any other type of opinion that I may desire without fear of retribution by governments or any other person in authority over me at any time – such as a university chancellor, a principal, a policeman/ or woman, a doctor etc. I have the right to my opinion without fearing detention, torture or any other imposition upon me.
Freedom of speech is the most important part of our lives that we have. It is important to us as the air we breath and the water we drink. It is fundamental to our well being. Freedom of speech therefore is our most important asset. Without this in our lives we may be subjected to harsh regimes and dictatorships. A country that has no freedom of speech has a very dangerous government in control.
For example, in China a teacher was jailed for putting educational information upon the internet. Amnesty International claims that the search engine Yahoo provided the government with details of emails that were sent by this teacher and he was jailed by the Chinese governments. So why are we concerned about freedom of speech in Australia? We seem to have a fair democracy with all the freedoms our hearts could desire.
How would you feel if you went onto Myspace for example and typed a blog and then twelve hours later there was a knock at the door, you were dragged out of your home - interrogated for two days without a right to a lawyer and then when you were returned home, were not allowed to speak to anyone about anything that had transpired for those past two days? Not in Australia?
I am sorry to say that this can and is happening in Australia.
3 What have been the fundamental changes to our laws, which have caused concern?
A critique on the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002 (Cth)
What have been the fundamental changes to our laws, which have caused concern?
Michael Head a senior law lecturer at University of Western Sydney states –
“ on the pretext of shielding the Australian people from terrorism and protecting the national borders, the government has introduced legislation and undertaken executive action that arguably undermines fundamental democratic rights, including freedom of
speech and political association and freedom from arbitrary detention...[Howard] called on Labor to 'complete the job’ by supporting the final component of the legislative package, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Bill 2002 (Cth) (‘ASIO Bill’)…this has meant that Australia’s profile as a terrorist target has risen and our
interests abroad face a higher level of terrorist threat. … Under the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002 (Cth) a ‘terrorist act’ extends to acts or threats that advance ‘a political, religious or ideological cause’ for the purpose of ‘coercing or influencing by intimidation’ any government or section of the public… It further insisted that detainees could be denied access to a lawyer, even a security-cleared one, for the first 48 hours of detention and that ASIO monitor all communications between a detainee and a lawyer…”
It may be of interest to compare for example 50 years ago, when the Australian communist party was potentially outlawed by legislation during the Cold War of 1950-51. This legislation was deemed a breach of the Constitution and deemed ultra vires which means that the legislation was illegal by being outside the powers of the government to legislate upon. The Howard government’s arguments in support of the ASIO Act is somewhat similar to that of the arguments during the Menzies period.
DETENTION WITHOUT CHARGE The original proposal of the ASIO Bill 2002 (Cth) proposed that ASIO have the power to detain people in police custody without charge; to hold them incommunicado; to deny them access to legal advice; to strip-search detainees; and to interrogate them in detention for at least 48 hours, with provision for indefinite extension through the issuing of repeated warrants. Under this original Bill, detainees did not need to be suspected of a terrorist offence or any other criminal offence, but merely a suspicion leading to “reasonable grounds” to believe that the interrogation of detainees would “substantially assist the collection of intelligence that is important in relation to a terrorism offence” even where no terrorist act had occurred
Officers are able to use reasonable force to strip search people. Interrogation may be videotaped. There is no guarantees against the planting of evidence and extraction of false confessions according to Michael Chaaya in his analysis of the ASIO Act. In an attempt to prevent openly breaching the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Joint Parliamentary Committee proposed to restrict the detention power to adults over the age of 18 years.
The government in response only partially accepted the recommendations and it is now possible for children as young as 14 to be liable to detention provided that a parent, guardian or an ‘other acceptable representative’ be present during interogation. ASIO has the power to monitor all communicaiton between a detainee and a lawyer and if a lawyer is seen to ‘disrupt’ the interrogation ASIO now has the power to remove such a lawyer.
In response to the laws on terrorism, many submissions were made – One woman stating: “ The anti-terrorism legislation which allows ASIO to detain people incommunicado for up to 48 hours without charges without the right of silence and without access to a lawyer is quite draconian and reminiscent of Nazi Germany”
A Melbourne woman stated: It is my belief that the Bills being proposed are not really going to be used to defend Australia against terrorism, rather they will use the ‘war against terrorism’ against voices of dissent within the Australian community.
Another submission commented: Basic safeguards of freedom from arbitrary arrest should not be compromised in this way or the State itself becomes the terrorist. To quote Benjamin Franklin in his Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759, - “ They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Conclusion Clearly we cannot give up our freedom in order to combat terrorism as all is lost. Without our freedom we are nothing. We don’t want terrorism to occur but cannot take away our very fibre of society in combating the things we fear. We create a world filled with fear rather than a world of freedom and liberty, of equality and safety.