Let’s talk about the “War on Terror”.

A good friend once dryly quipped that it is a war on an abstract noun. It means whatever anyone wants it to mean.

This is not a war over anything tangible, with clear lines and distinct uniforms. This is a war over competing world views. It’s a war between western liberal democratic ideas and a particular branch of radical political Islam.

And in that war of ideas, the battlefield extends to the place where ideas themselves are prosecuted – in other words, the media. Journalists are no longer simply witnesses to the struggle. We are, by definition, a means by which the war itself is waged.

The fourth estate

In the classic model of democracy, we are familiar with the usual three pillars – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The media is the fourth estate.

The media is there to hold the other three to account, to keep the public informed of the policies that are being enacted in our name and to help oil public debate. It is an integral part of a properly functioning democracy.

I suspect that won’t come as much of a surprise to those of us who happen to live in one of the most stable, harmonious and prosperous places on the planet. And yet in the “War on Terror”, we seem to be losing sight of that key idea.

Governments the world over are using that “t” word to clamp down on the very freedoms that made us so successful in the first place. There are the easy examples, of course. In October 2015, police in Turkey raided the headquarters of a media group and closed two newspapers and two television stations that had been highly critical of the government. The group’s owners have been charged with supporting terrorism.

In China, North Korea and Russia – all the usual suspects – we’ve seen similar attacks on press freedom.

And then there is Egypt. My two colleagues and I were arrested and charged with being members of a terrorist organisation, of supporting a terrorist organisation, of financing a terrorist organisation and of broadcasting false news to undermine national security.

What we were actually doing was covering the unfolding political struggle with all the professional integrity that our imperfect trade demands – and that included reporting that was both accurate and balanced. And in this case, balanced reporting involved interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who six months earlier had been ousted from power after forming the country’s first democratically elected government. In other words, we were talking to the opposition.

I couldn’t have objected to being imprisoned if we had actually committed some offence. I could accept some punishment if we had broadcast news that was false, or if we really had been members of a terrorist organisation. But at no stage in the trial did the prosecution present anything to confirm any of the charges.

Once again, this wasn’t about what we had actually done so much as the ideas we were accused of transmitting. Egypt has gone on to introduce new legislation that makes it a criminal offence to publish anything that contradicts the official version of a terrorist incident.

If you check the facts, discover that the government has been trying to cover up some inconvenient truths, and publish what you know, you can be hit with a fine equivalent to $50,000.

Is Australia safe?

Lest we start to feel a little bit smug about our own country, let’s go back to three pieces of legislation introduced by the Australian Government over the past few years that all seriously undermine media freedom.

The first was section 35P of the ASIO Act – the new section that deals with the disclosure of information relating to Special Intelligence Operations (SIOs).

Essentially, this prohibits reporting of any undercover operations involving security agents. No responsible journalist wants to expose an ongoing operation, or put security agents at risk, but the new law goes far beyond that. The 35P offence carries a five-year jail term and double that for “reckless” unauthorised disclosure if we ever report on an SIO.

And, because there is no time limit on an SIO designation, you can be imprisoned for reporting on one regardless of how far in the past it happened. That’s despite the fact that reporters will never know what operations have been designated an SIO – because that little detail is also secret.

So, simply looking for information about the work of the security services runs the risk of breaking the law and landing you in prison.

The second piece of legislation is known as the Foreign Fighters Bill. The killer line here is the new offence of “advocating terrorism”. The media union – the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) – argues that it suppresses legitimate speech and advocacy, but the MEAA is worried particularly that it could include news stories that report on banned advocacy or even fair comment and analysis.

The third legislative tranche is the Data Retention Bill requiring telecommunication companies to keep metadata for at least two years so it can be accessed by a variety of agencies, including security organisations and the police.

The problem for journalists is that it gives the authorities both the tools and the legal cover to explore their contacts with sources.

If you’re a public servant and you have information on some misdeeds within your department, and decide that you have a moral obligation to expose it, simply picking up the phone and calling a newspaper makes you a potential target of the security services. It makes confidential whistle-blowing almost impossible without risking a prison term.

The government keeps claiming that none of these measures is directed at silencing the media. That may be true, but each in their own way has a corrosive effect on the ability of journalists to do the job that basic democratic theory demands of us.

How can we, the public, keep track of the government’s security policies – surely one of the most critical areas of the government’s work – when the media can’t report on abuses of that policy for fear of winding up in jail?

How can we have a rational public debate about what constitutes Aussie values when we can’t quote people who hold views from across the social and political spectrum? How can we encourage insiders to blow the whistle on government misdeeds when we can’t ever guarantee that our sources will remain safe?

While the media has a responsibility to lift our game and restore some measure of public confidence, politicians also must recognise what we stand to lose if they are too swift to criminalise free speech or limit the work the media does. It is about nothing less than defending one of the most fundamental pillars of our democracy.

Let me quote Mahatma Gandhi:

“In a true democracy, every man and woman is taught to think for himself or herself.” Click To Tweet

This cannot happen if the media isn’t allowed or simply is incapable of giving every man and woman the information they need to think for themselves, and take part in our democracy.

In 2016, Greste spoke at the annual Mahatma Gandhi lecture at the University of NSW. This is an edited extract from his speech and was originally published in the March 2016 issue of LSJ.