Freedom of the press is integral to an open and democratic society, and such liberties should also embrace citizen journalists who collect and distribute the news. With traditional laws slow to adapt to rapidly changing technologies, citizen journalists and social media are sometimes on the wrong side of the law.
Using a smartphone to tweet a message is ubiquitous, and few of us pause to consider the laws that govern these actions. A citizen journalist’s content can reach a broad audience without benefit of the editorial and legal supports that exist within traditional news media.
According to Freedom House, a watchdog organisation that analyses and advocates for the advancement of global freedoms and human rights, only 13 percent of the world’s population live in a country with a free press. Citizen journalists in the most open countries are less likely to fall foul of local laws.
For citizens of more restrictive societies, social media may entice the flouting of local media laws, but this may have consequences. On September 25, Nahed Hatter was shot multiple times outside a court house in Amman, Jordan. Hatter was a writer about to face court, charged with offending Islam. His alleged crime: sharing a satirical cartoon on his Facebook page.
Even in the most press friendly societies, where laws protect the rights and content of journalists, situations arise where individuals find themselves harassed or arrested for reporting news events. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, police in the United States facing heightened public scrutiny of their behaviour, are challenging citizen journalists who film police activities.
We are fortunate that Australia has greater freedoms than many countries around the world, but it is important to remember that the Australian laws that regulate traditional news media, also apply to citizen journalists. Focusing on factual reporting may help steer clear of legal troubles, but this is not always easy — social media almost demands that you comment and interject emotions and opinions.
Additional legal issues facing the citizen journalist are exposed when undertaking an investigative role reliant on whistleblowers or protected sources. The Evidence Amendment Act 2011, does offer some protections to journalists, and its definition of journalist is likely to embrace even citizen journalists.
Things become murkier for citizen journalists if the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015, is used by police to reveal the identity of a whistleblower source. This law affords some safeguards specifically for journalists; however, these protections only extend to a person who is working in a “professional” capacity as a journalist and may not protect communications involving a citizen journalist.
It is always important to remember that once published, social media content slips from the grasp of its creator’s control. This does not mean that we should censor themselves, but rather behave professionally, with an awareness that there are laws that apply to our actions on social media. What do you think, should social media and citizen journalists be held to the same accountability as traditional news media?