Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s ongoing ban of the NT Independent undermines basic democratic values and is contributing to the erosion of integrity in government, says journalist Peter Greste, who was jailed in Egypt for more than a year while on assignment for Al-Jazeera in 2013.
Greste, who is now the spokesman for the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom (AJF), an Australian organisation that monitors and advocates for press freedoms across the Asia-Pacific region, said Mr Gunner’s undemocratic ban on the free press needs to end.
“The Gunner Government runs the risk of losing the integrity of the very system they work so hard to protect if they do not resolve the issue,” Greste told the NT Independent.
“Governments deciding to pick and choose which journalists they provide access to press conferences to contradicts the proper functioning of a liberal democracy.”
The NT Independent has been banned from attending press conferences and receiving information from government departments since its inception in March, raising press freedom concerns from Australian and international journalism organisations and legal experts.
Mr Gunner and the public service have not responded to questions posed by the NT Independent on topics including Mr Gunner’s secret China deal, questionable taxpayer-funded government travel, crime issues, public safety issues and COVID-19 related issues.
Greste said that level of secrecy from a sitting government is concerning.
“Governments that avoid questions that touch on matters of public interest undermine the essential transparency that makes our democracy work,” he said.
Mr Gunner’s office has repeatedly claimed the ban on the NT Independent is due to “the nature of the ownership” of the online paper, which is owned by local businessman Owen Pike, who has been publicly critical of the government on social media.
However, the NT Independent operates with editorial independence by editor Christopher Walsh, a former ABC and NT News journalist who co-authored a book about the murky world of NT politics.
“We’ve explained the editorial independence of the paper to Mr Gunner’s office numerous times, but they continue to refuse to work with us, even after eight months of reporting that has always been fair and accurate and afforded the government right of reply on every political news story,” he said.
Gunner’s banning of people he doesn’t like could violate the MLA Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards Act
Last month, Mr Gunner upped the stakes of his government’s refusal to work with those he does not personally like by attempting to ban CLP Senator Sam McMahon from a federal funding announcement around the new ship lift facility.
His power play against the Morrison Government was shut down, but it’s understood the move has affected the NT’s relationship with Canberra, a relationship that is crucial to the NT’s survival considering its heavy dependence on Commonwealth funding to keep the lights on.
Allowing personal feelings to influence official government decisions that are to be made in the best interests of Territorians appears to be a breach of the NT MLA Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards Act.
The Act stipulates that any decision made by an MLA in the public interest must be “based on an honest, reasonable and properly informed judgement…”, that requires a person’s likes and dislikes to be set aside to make that decision honestly.
The requirement of government decisions is that they be made to “best advance the common good of the people of the Territory”.
The Act also requires all Members of the Legislative Assembly to foster the freedom of reporting by media.
Mr Gunner, Labor’s director of communications Maria Billias and all current Labor MLAs declined to comment on the possible breaches of the Act.
The MEAA, ABC’s Media Watch, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and various constitutional and journalism experts have all called on the Gunner Labor Government to end its ban on the NT Independent and respect the freedom of the press.
Mr Gunner and Ms Billias declined to comment for this story.