Freedom of speech and censorship: How free are we?

Freedom of speech and censorship: How free are we?

Freedom of speech and censorship: How free are we?

Les Murray, Abdalla Ahmed, Tim Costello, Stephen Kenny, The Herd and Dr. Julianne Schultz will share their opinions, on the controversial topics, as part of the Uncensored Conversations events that will take place at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House throughout May and June.

The three topics cover through the Uncensored Conversations are:
Immigration, asylum seekers and refugees: What is the real impact?
Involvement or intrusion: Where is the line for our Government?
Freedom of speech and censorship: How free are we?

Robin Sellick, well-known Australian celebrity photographer has taken photographs of each speaker as part of the Uncensored Conversations exhibition.

For more information please see:

Interview with Julianne Schultz

Julianne Schultz is the Editor at Griffith REVIEW and Professor, Centre for Public Culture and Ideas at Griffith University.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Uncensored Conversations events?

Julianne Schultz: These conversations are a part of the program run at the Museum, which is in Old Parliament House, designed to show that democracy touches all of our lives, that it is not just something that happens between politicians. The organisers have chosen important topics, and have asked the speakers to address them by talking about how these issues impact on their lives.

You are speaking as part of the freedom of speech and censorship topic. How will you approach this discussion?

Julianne Schultz: It should be an interesting panel. I am talking with several of the musicians from The Herd who have really brought a lot of topical political issues to life through their singing and performing. My background is in media and journalism, and so this will inform my approach. Easy and free access to information is a really important part of any democracy, and even more so these days now that the internet is changing the way we communicate and the information we can get access to. Now one of the challenges is making sense of the vast amount of information that is available.

You are passionate about these issues. When did you develop this passion and become involved with these freedom issues?

Julianne Schultz: As a writer and journalist who are working with words and information, access to information is my lifeblood. We have seen what happens in societies where people don't have access to information, they become corrupt and fearful. I probably first got involved in these arguments when I was a student in Queensland during the Joh Bjelke Petersen days where the media was very much under the thumb of the government, and secrecy and gossip prevailed and set up the conditions that enabled corruption to flourish.

Do you believe currently everyone, in Australia, has the right to freedom of speech?

Julianne Schultz: Australia is a very tolerant and diverse country, and while we don't have a bill of rights that gives us this freedom explicitly, in practice we certainly have that right. There is a need for vigilance because the erosion can happen in ways that you don't notice until it is too late. We have to remembered that it was only a few decades ago when there was a long long list of books and other material that was censored, books that are probably now studied in schools had to be smuggled into the country by people who risked going to jail if they were caught. So we have come a long way, freedom of speech is expected and strongly defended and we have a vigorous and engaged public culture where very little is off limits.

How free are journalists in regards to freedom of speech?

Julianne Schultz: There has been a big Right to Know campaign run by the media companies over the past four or five years. There were real concerns about the problems caused by restrictive freedom of information laws, closed courts and some of the anti-terrorism legislation. It is important that when journalists and media organisations make the case that they keep uppermost that this freedom is because of their unique role in making the information available to others.

During discussions on what topics does freedom of speech and censorship normally become an issue?

Julianne Schultz: We have seen if become an issue in terms of the internet filtering discussions, and during the panic around the Bill Henson photographs, it was also a big issue during the height of the anti-terrorism debates after 9/11 and for the voluntary euthanasia activists. A lot of this is going to change with the way the internet is changing the way that governments work on the basis that lots of people have access to information. This is going to be a big change, as part of the many changes the internet is causing. When my friend Frank Moorhouse wrote his big essay on this subject in Griffith REVIEW he suggested that the internet was likely to change things so much that his might be the last big essay that was written on the subject.

What can be done to protect journalists, especially if they choose to challenge popular or political views?

Julianne Schultz: Journalists job is to report. So they need to get access as freely as possible, within the limits of the law and national security, to information that means that people can make decisions about political and other decisions. If their reporting creates the climate that means that popular and political views need to be challenged, they need to keep reporting, and telling the stories of what is going on, why it matters and what the consequences might be. They need to be courageous in this - but their job is to report, to provide the first draft of history.

How does the Australian freedom of speech and censorship differ to other countries, especially America?

Julianne Schultz: Australia doesn't have a constitutional right to freedom of speech in the way that the Americans and many other countries with a bill of rights do, but the courts agree we have an implied right to freedom of political speech and that is well exercised here. The defamation laws have changed in recent years and seem to have made it easier to report things which would once have been difficult to report because of the law of libel. In both countries and throughout the world the internet is changing how we can get access to information and how we can use it. Of course all this operates in a commercial marketplace, so some things will be heard more loudly than others - but the barriers to communication are probably lower than they have ever been in the history of civilisation.

Do you believe the Internet has changed the way we view freedom of speech?

Julianne Schultz: Yes, I think we expect to be able to get all the information and material we want, and to get it NOW. The tricky domain for the true believers in absolute freedom of speech is who puts the limits on what can be read and seen and heard. I am comfortable with their being prohibitions on illegal material - but think that it is increasingly important that children are taught how to evaluate information, and how to reject and ignore offensive and illegal material.

What opinions do you hope to change through Uncensored Conversations?

Julianne Schultz: I am not setting out to change anyone's opinion, I believe in an open conversation in which we can listen to quite different points of view and make sense of big complex problems with as much information as we can access. A narrow ideological view of what is the right way to consider a problem is itself a limit on freedom of expression, because if only the prevailing or accepted position is heard we won't know what the concerns are of people who have different views. I am a big believer in the value of public and private conversation to help create more informed and civil country.

Interview by Brooke Hunter