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Freedom of Speech: Australia Remains Silent

Photo: Adam Smith

Photo: Adam Smith

The following article was originally published in the Sydney City Hub Newspaper on October 13, 2008. It was then re-published in the FONAS Fine Arts Magazine – Summer Edition, 2008

By Reuben Brand

In the wake of the Bill Henson fiasco that divided the nation, robust discussion on Australia’s censorship laws and freedom of speech have taken centre stage.

In late May, more than 20 photographs of naked minors were seized by police from the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington, Sydney.

The photographer, Bill Henson, was threatened with child pornography charges and galleries around the country took his images off their walls. But the Department of Public Prosecutions dropped the case and Australians began to debate the most fundamental right of any democratic society. Freedom of speech.

David Marr, journalist, commentator and author of The Henson Case, documented the scenes of one of the most contentious events of 2008.

The Henson Case explores the censorship debate and contains interviews with Bill Henson, members of the NSW police force, child abuse campaigners and leading figures in the arts community including Cate Blanchett.

Speaking at the Seymour Centre on October 13, Mr Marr addressed the controversies surrounding the censorship of Henson’s exhibition.

He gave a detailed account of how a collection of photographs shaped the artistic and cultural discourse in Australia and how it has affected our international reputation.

When the controversy first erupted, an Arts Censorship Forum was convened at the MCA.
Tamara Winikoff, executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, said the forum had raised important issues.

“There are a lot of existing laws which limit freedom of expression, but what is evident is that they do not sufficiently protect the use of children in advertising and the sexualisation of children in the media,” she said.

“I think the Henson case has raised very important issues. In Australia we need to protect our freedom of expression. We should not be so hasty in giving up these rights, or our intellectual and moral territories.”

Irene Moss, former NSW Independent Commissioner against Corruption (ICAC) boss and state Ombudsman, now chairs the Right to Know campaign which conducted an independent assessment into the state of free speech in Australia.

The Moss report, released in October 2007, found that freedom of speech in Australia was being ‘whittled away by gradual and almost imperceptible degrees’ within a culture of secrecy.

The report concludes there is “mounting evidence that the lure of political advantage increasingly trumps principles of democratic transparency”.

“The audit indicates that many of the mechanisms that are vital to a well-functioning democracy are beginning to wear thin – their functioning in many areas is flawed and not well-maintained,” said Ms Moss.

“We believe it is time for legislative reform, but also for clear leadership in government and the courts to bring about change to improve openness, transparency and accountability for decisions that affect all Australians.”

Reporters Sans Frontiers ranked Australia at 28, alongside Ghana and after Lithuania, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, in their latest global Press Freedom Index.

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