Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said she does not “recognise” the NT Independent as a media organisation, despite her federal Labor colleagues, the national union representing journalists, other journalistic bodies around the world and tens of thousands of Territorians all supporting this news publication.
Ms Fyles was asked during Estimates hearings on Tuesday if she intends to continue former chief minister Michael Gunner’s illegal ban on the NT Independent that saw him block this publication from attending his minister’s press conferences and obtaining information from government departments.
The move has been widely condemned by the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance, constitutional law experts, the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, the ABC’s Media Watch program, an international journalism body and others who have all called for the ban on the NT Independent to be lifted and for the NT Government to respect fundamental democratic principles.
Ms Fyles said she does not “recognise” the NT Independent “in the sense that it’s just owned by an individual, and you know that individual is Mr Owen Pike”.
“I’ve been subjected to derogatory comments on social media,” she said.
“Certainly in terms of freedom of, of accredited media and equally media that will provide an unbiased view, we’re always willing to consider that but there’s no policy position as such.”
She then added that there has been “no direction issued by me” to ban the NT Independent from attending government press conferences and receiving information from government departments.
The ban on the NT Independent was enacted by Mr Gunner in contravention of the MLA Code of Conduct legislation that states all MLAs must foster freedom of reporting and the independence of the public service. The government used its numbers in Parliament last year to prevent a motion to refer Mr Gunner to the disciplinary committee for the breach.
Independent MLA Robyn Lambley first raised the issue of the ban on the free press in Estimates on Tuesday, which the Opposition CLP also inquired about.
Ms Fyles continued to say she doesn’t “recognise the website as an independent or reputable media outlet”, but failed to explain why.
“So anyone can get a bit of cash and form a website and claim they’re a media organisation, so, you don’t know…” Ms Fyles said.
“Haven’t you just described News Corp,” said Ms Lambley.
“That could be a point,” Ms Fyles said. “But to me they’re not a reputable media outlet, but happy to consider that into the future.”
NT Independent editor Christopher Walsh said Ms Fyles needed to explain her comments.
“If we were as thin-skinned as some of our pollies in Parliament, we might claim to be ‘offended’ by the Chief Minister’s remarks,” Walsh said.
“But I’m more confused than anything, especially when she says there is no policy to ban us. The NT Independent has never posted derogatory remarks about Ms Fyles on social media, in fact we’ve been trying to work with her and have sent emails to her staff seeking clarification of our status for weeks. She’s referencing an unrelated Facebook page that no longer exists and had nothing to do with the NT Independent.
“The NT Independent is recognised by her federal Labor colleagues, but more importantly, tens of thousands of Territorians every single day who trust us to deliver the news they won’t read anywhere else.
“It appears the Chief Minister is not aware the NT Independent won Best News Coverage at last year’s NT Media Awards against tough competition in the NT News and ABC Darwin judged by our journalistic peers across the country. We also took home the Best Crime/Court Reporting award against all other media in the NT.
“We’re proud of our commitment to the Territory and telling the difficult stories the others won’t for fear of this kind of retaliatory action. Somebody has to report on everything without fear or favour.”
The NT Independent contacted Ms Fyles personally and her staff last month to request to attend the government’s press conferences but has not heard back.