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National security laws threaten freedom of government whistleblowers and journalists

Prison point: “(The annual Human Rights Watch report) said more than half of Australia’s prison population had some kind of disability, and it also condemned the high rate of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system, especially Indigenous children – who are 26 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous children.”

FREE speech in Australia is increasingly under threat with public-servant whistleblowers and journalists unfairly targeted by the government under the guise of national security, according to an annual report released by Human Rights Watch.

Refugee rights, Indigenous rights and aged care are among other issues raising concerns in the 30th edition of The World Report, released on January 14.

In 2019, Australian Federal Police raided the home of a News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst over reports about surveillance in Australia.

The AFP also raided the Sydney headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) over reports on war crimes in Afghanistan. 

The raids sparked an inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, that is now an investigation into the effect of national security laws on the nation’s media freedoms.

“Australia’s national security laws shouldn’t be used to intimidate the media or those holding the government to account,” Australia director at Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson said. 

“The government seems intent on sending a message to officials not to share information with journalists.”

The World Report is a review of human rights practices in nearly 100 countries.

It noted that closed court proceedings continued against a whistleblower, “Witness K”, and his lawyer for secrecy breaches regarding exposures of alleged wrongdoing by the Australian Government concerning trade negotiations with Timor-Leste.

The report is also critical of Australia’s asylum-seeker and refugee policies, saying medical facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru are not dealing properly with the complex health needs of those in offshore detention.

As of last December, 466 asylum seekers remained in offshore detention facilities.

The report states at least 12 refugees and asylum seekers have died in Australia’s offshore processing system since 2013, six of them due to suicide.

In February 2019, Federal Parliament passed a law facilitating transfers of detainees requiring medical treatment from offshore locations to Australia, but the so-called Medevac Law was repealed in December, a move Human Rights Watch says leaves refugees and asylum seekers in limbo.

Human Rights Watch said Australia last year took a more vocal stance on key human rights issues including China’s detention of one million Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

In the latest report, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth provides a detailed analysis of how the Chinese Government “depends on repression to stay in power” and is “carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades”.

New York-based Mr Roth wrote that Beijing’s actions both encouraged and gained support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities used their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. 

“Chinese authorities orchestrate their attacks on human rights criticism in part through the centralised deployment of their economic clout,” Mr Roth wrote. 

“No Chinese business can afford to ignore the dictates of the Communist Party, so when word comes down to punish a country for its criticism of Beijing – for example, by not purchasing its goods – the company has no choice but to comply. 

“The result is that any non-Chinese government or company seeking to do business with China, if it publicly opposes Beijing’s repression, faces not a series of individual Chinese companies’ decisions about how to respond but a single central command, with access to the entire Chinese market – 16 per cent of the world economy – at stake.”

China’s persistent surveillance and alleged intimidation of pro-Hong Kong Chinese students enrolled in Australian universities was also flagged.

In the United States, the Human Rights Watch report criticised the ability of shooters to obtain military-style weapons to carry out killings, adding there was growing public support for stronger federal laws restricting some access to guns.

The report also described global anti-government protests in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Bolivia, Russia and Hong Kong, and criticised democratic governments’ response to the protests as “lukewarm and selective”.

In Australia, the report welcomed the announcement in April of a royal commission into violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation of people with disabilities.

It said more needed to be done to support people with disabilities in the prison system.

It said more than half of Australia’s prison population had some kind of disability, and it also condemned the high rate of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system, especially Indigenous children – who are 26 times more likely to be detained than non-Indigenous children.

The routine use of drugs to control people in aged-care facilities came under scrutiny, an issue also raised during the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety that started in 2019.

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