Townsville Bulletin journalist John Andersen outside Townsvilles Magistrates Court in 2001.- Picture: Cameron Laird.
Townsville Bulletin journalist John Andersen outside Townsvilles Magistrates Court in 2001.- Picture: Cameron Laird.

Prosecuted for reporting alleged human rights abuses

WHEN senior Townsville Bulletin journalist John Andersen received a call from female prisoners alleging human rights abuses, little did he know charges and prosecution would be coming his way for simply doing his job.

The article published in the year 2000, "Prisoners' horror claim: Women drank urine in cells'', reported on the alleged mistreatment of three female prisoners in the Townsville Women's Correctional Centre.

The women claimed they were so desperate from thirst they had licked urine from a prison cell floor while confined in body belts. They said authorities had ignored their complaints.

After the report was published, Mr Andersen was charged with interviewing a prisoner without the authority of the Corrective Services Department and potentially faced jail time.

Today, readers will see the front page of all News Corp newspapers "censored", as part of a nationwide campaign brought forward by a coalition of media companies united to fight for the public's right to know, amid a crackdown on whistleblowers and new laws allowing governments to operate in secret and without scrutiny.

Mr Andersen said the laws being introduced under the guise of protecting national security allowed government to "control the message" and crackdown on information as Hitler and Stalin did.

"We might have been on the wrong side of the law when we published the prisoner reports, but we were on the right side of humanity," he said.

"We were proved to be right, not once but twice when the government appealed."

The three charges that had been laid against Mr Andersen were dismissed by Magistrate Graham Hillan.

"It was a great win, a win for the women involved, and a win for press freedom in Queensland," Mr Andersen said.

"You can't walk away from people in those sorts of situations. A lot of the laws now are to save the government from embarrassment.

"And the nature of those laws is to intimidate media companies and editors so stories like that never see the light of day. It's really about suppressing the media."

Former Bulletin editor John Affleck said he was angry Mr Andersen could have been jailed for doing his job, and the impact it could have had on his family.

"The laws as proposed have a chilling effect, I think in the long run we have to be mindful of our responsibility to our readers, to all Australians, we're the fourth estate, we're the watchdogs," he said.

"With the sorts of penalties now, you would have to think very carefully and get a lot of legal advice, in turn the laws do have a chilling effect on media in pursuing stories of the utmost importance which is what was intended."