JLN, we expect you to follow your state’s new rules when posting here…
South Australia has become one of the few states in the world to censor the internet.
The new law, which came into force on January 6, requires internet bloggers, and anyone making a comment on next month’s state election, to publish their real name and postcode when commenting on the poll.
The law will affect anyone posting a comment on an election story on The Advertiser’s AdelaideNow website, as well as other news sites such as The Punch, the ABC’s The Drum and Fairfax newspapers’ National Times site.
It also appears to apply to election comment made on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The law, which was pushed through last year as part of a raft of amendments to the Electoral Act and supported by the Liberal Party, also requires media organisations to keep a person’s real name and full address on file for six months, and they face fines of $5000 if they do not hand over this information to the Electoral Commissioner.
The Right to Know Coalition, made up of Australia’s major media outlets including News Limited, publisher of The Advertiser , has called the new laws “draconian”.
“This is one of the most troubling erosions of the right to free speech in Australia for many years,” Right to Know spokeswoman Creina Chapman said.
BEAT THE CENSOR: Have your say now. Normal moderation rules apply - until the writs for the March 20 election are issued.
THE ADVERTISER EDTIORIAL: CENSORING FREE SPEECH IN THE SECRET STATE
"It is a fundamental principle of our democracy that voters are able to express personal views about the competing claims of political candidates without the fear that they might end up on a hit list held by a government whose policies they may have opposed.
“Isn’t the whole point of public debate that it is public and that Australians, including South Australians, are smart enough to read or listen to the views of others and make up their own minds?”
Ms Chapman also pointed out that newspaper blogs such as AdelaideNow were moderated and publishers and broadcasters took responsibility for the material they published.
Attorney-General Michael Atkinson denied that the new law was an attack on free speech.
“The AdelaideNow website is not just a sewer of criminal defamation, it is a sewer of identity theft and fraud,” Mr Atkinson said.
“There is no impinging on freedom of speech, people are free to say what they wish as themselves, not as somebody else.”
Mr Atkinson also said he expected The Advertiser to target him for sponsoring the law. “I am also certain that Advertiser Newspapers and News Limited will punish me personally, viciously for being the attorney-general responsible for this law,” he said.
“You will publish false stories about me, invent things about me to punish me.”
The Advertiser’s editor, Melvin Mansell, said: "Clearly this is censorship being implemented by a government facing an election.
"The effect of that is that many South Australians are going to be robbed of their right of freedom of speech during this election campaign.
"The sad part is that this widespread suppression is supported by the Opposition.
“Neither of these parties are representing the people for whom they have been elected to govern.”
While Tasmania has similar provisions, it is believed the SA law is the most heavy-handed in Australia.
The SA law also differs from federal legislation, which preserves the right of internet users to blog under a pseudonym.
The new legislation could also apply to talkback radio.
The law will apply as soon as the writs for the March 20 election are issued. The writs for the election can be issued any time between now and 25 days before the election. The law will then lapse at 6pm on polling day.
Mt Atkinson said there was no intention to broaden the law to take it beyond the period of elections.
Similar laws have been in use in South Korea for some time and China also introduced a similar requirement last year.
Opposition justice spokeswoman Vickie Chapman said yesterday while the Liberal Party had supported the amendment to the Electoral Act, she believed it would be too broad to implement if it included Facebook and Twitter and said Mr Atkinson should introduce a regulation to limit its scope.
“It is clearly not the intention of what we understood that to be,” she said.
Australian Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O’Gorman predicted the new laws would have a “chilling” effect on free speech and said South Australia was building a reputation as a secretive state.
“Freedom of speech is generally not high on the agenda for (the South Australian Government) in any given 12-month period.”
John Quiggin, a long-time blogger and Research Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland, doubted whether the laws were enforceable.
“They can pass as draconian law as they like, but without the capacity to impose their own internet censorship it’s going to be a dead lemon,” he said.
"Anyone who wants to can set up an anonymous blog.
“It will be totally ineffectual with someone who sets up a Wordpress blog post in the US under a false name and publish whatever they want.”