Taking responsibility, or being silenced?

I had been contemplating writing some posts about the South Australian election, coming up on 20 March.

But it seems that if I am to do so, either on Larvatus Prodeo, or on my own blog, I must publish my full name, and my post code. That’s what section 116 of the Electoral Act 1985 (South Australia) says. Check the story in The Advertiser.

This law change came into effect on January 6 this year, and was pushed through last year as part of a suite of changes to the Electoral Act. The opposition Liberal party supported the change.

Here’s the relevant piece of legislation.

116—Published material to identify person responsible for political content

(1) A person must not, during an election period, publish material consisting of, or containing a commentary on, any candidate or political party, or the issues being submitted to electors, in written form, in a journal published in electronic form on the Internet or by radio or television or broadcast on the Internet, unless the material or the programme in which the material is presented contains a statement of the name and address (not being a post office box) of a person who takes responsibility for the publication of the material.
Maximum penalty:
(a) if the offender is a natural person—$1 250;
(b) if the offender is a body corporate—$5 000.

(2) This section does not apply to—
(a) the publication in a journal (including a journal published in electronic form on the Internet) of a leading article;
(b) the publication of a report of a meeting that does not contain any comment (other than comment made by a speaker at the meeting) on any candidate, or political party, or the issues being submitted to electors;
(c) the publication in a journal (including a journal published in electronic form on the Internet) of an article, letter, report or other matter if—
(i) the name and address (not being a post office box) of a person who takes responsibility for the publication of the material is provided to the publisher of the journal and retained by the publisher for a period of 6 months after the end of the election period; and
(ii) the journal contains a statement of the name and postcode of the person who takes responsibility for the publication of the material;
(ca) the publication of a letter (otherwise than as described in paragraph (c)) that contains the name and address (not being a post office box) of the author of the letter;
(d) a news service or a current affairs programme on radio or television or broadcast on the Internet;
(e) any other prescribed material or class of material.

(3) In this section—
journal means a newspaper, magazine or other periodical.

I’ve long blogged semi-anonymously, but you could find my full name if you tried a little. But why on earth should I reveal my postcode, just in order to make a comment on an election?

I feel silenced. So much so that I am reluctant to comment on this story, other than to let you know about the issue. It’s not an election issue, not something that is about ” the issues being submitted to electors” because as far as I know, this issue wasn’t placed in front of electors at all, other than through normal parliamentary legislative procedures. Even so, I feel concerned that if I speak too loudly, I could be targetted by our parliamentary overlords.

You may not hear much from me about the South Australian elections after all.

Cross posted

***************

Update: South Australia’s Attorney-General clearly thinks that the legislation applies to blogs. See this video on AdelaideNow (the website of the local newspaper, The Advertiser): Atkinson defends new web laws.

I’ve prepared a transcript, which is as accurate as I can manage. I haven’t tried to put one or two lexical hesitations in. He was obviously responding to questions; the paragraph breaks mark where the video shifts slightly to indicate a transition between one answer and another.

The electoral act ensures honesty in political commentary. This is all about honesty. When people read letters to the editor and blogs they know that they’re reading a real person.

All 69 state MPs voted for this. Not one person that I can recall spoke out against it.

To those relentless anonymous bloggers who want to defame people I say, do your worst outside the campaign period but that three or four weeks of the general election, let’s be civilised and have honesty and truthfulness in our political discourse.

The Advertiser / AdelaideNow website has almost no moderation whatsoever.

I don’t who is moderating the AdelaideNow website, but their knowledge of defamation law would fit comfortably on the back of a postage stamp.

No doubt there’ll be difficulties in enforcing it; the law may be mocked; all we can do is pass what we think is a virtuous and decent law which accords with public values.

News Limited is a multi-billion dollar international organisation (and) someone like me has no hope of standing up against News Limited and criticising them but I will speak the truth and I will speak it courageously and News Limited won’t stop me.

Or, shorter Atkinson: “It’s all about ME!”

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32 responses to “Taking responsibility, or being silenced?

  1. A second wow here. Being required to give out your post code and real name together on the Internet seems less than safe.

  2. It is a clear case of intimidation. The pollies will argue “why should somebody hide behind anonymity, we can’t?”

    But that ignores that fact that there is a massive power imbalance, with the pollies politically experienced, with media contacts, state funded staff, and a party machine.

    So sure, let’s level the playing field. If we can’t comment, they the Pollies shouldn’t receive any taxpayer support during the election – no offices, no media minders, no salary, no allowances.

    That would be fair.

  3. Wow. Why have they done this? I can’t really think of a legitimate (ie. Non-silencing) reason for it.

  4. “You may not hear much from me about the South Australian elections after all.”

    And that is a great shame, Deborah, because your political analyses have been very insightful and enriching.

  5. I just heard Michael Atkinson, the state Attorney-General who is responsible for this law, on the radio. He said something to the effect of, “We need to know who is making statements, so that we know who to sue.”

  6. This is crazy. The pollies are slipping through so many censorship related laws lately, its extremely creepy.

    It seems like they’ve caught onto the fact that people actually discuss things on the internet and debate issues. They don’t like that.

    Although I can understand not wanting to take a risk, I would just post anyway. Fuck them.

  7. By my reading, it’s the person “publishing” the material who’s responsible. Send them to me, I’ll “publish” them on my blog under your name. I’ll take “responsibility” as a resident of New Zealand for telling them to go f4ck themselves, in the finest cultural tradition 🙂

    Does that sound workable, lawyerly folks?

  8. Two questions, and one comment…

    a) Whatever happened to “free speech”?

    b) What would happen to anyone “publishing” a commentary from outside South Australia or Australia?

    Unbelievable! What are they so worried about? Another good reason for living in NZ after 16 months in Oz (although not SA)!

  9. Oh, look at the time, 1984 already.

    This is absolutely crazy. Has Atkinson lost his mind?

  10. Surely the publisher in this case is wordpress?

  11. I just heard Michael Atkinson, the state Attorney-General who is responsible for this law, on the radio. He said something to the effect of, “We need to know who is making statements, so that we know who to sue.”

    So, anyone want to publish Michael Atkinson’s home address and (presumably unlisted) phone number? Didn’t think so…

  12. vibenna wrote:
    It is a clear case of intimidation. The pollies will argue “why should somebody hide behind anonymity, we can’t?”

    And I’d reply that’s only true up to a point. I’ve had a quick and dirty scan of the websites of the S.A. Parliament and state and federal parties. Funny how politicians aren’t that keen on posting their home addresses and contact details on public websites, isn’t it?

    I also have the oddest feeling that anyone in the state Attorney-General’s office who gave out that information without explicit and specific permission wouldn’t even have time to clear out their desks. Nor should they — politicians value their privacy and safety, but it would be damn nice if they extended the same courtesy to the nasty opinionated proles.

    This has nothing to do with accountability and fairness, and everything to do with power and control over who gets to join the democratic conversation.

  13. This is truly awful Deborah. Sucks that you, and so many others, (but especially you from my pov!) have been silenced. Sounds like a Baby Boomer decision based on not understanding teh interwebz to me.

    Kind of reminds me of a certain leader of a certain political party who used to get incredibly upset about members discussing matters on an email loop, which he could read and contribute to. Because the Proper Forum for democratic dialogue is in the Town Hall!

  14. I haven’t commented here before, and I’m an expert on New Zealand electoral law, not South Australian, but I believe you’ve misinterpreted the law.

    The new law, in simplified form states:

    A person must not, during an election period, publish … commentary … in a journal published in electronic form on the Internet unless …

    To determine whether you are covered by this change you must consider whether this blog is a “journal”. Blogs might generally fall within this description, but it is – as you note/quote – helpfully defined in the section.

    In this section—
    journal means a newspaper, magazine or other periodical.

    This doesn’t include blogs. So you’re fine – the change in the law does not affect you on here.

  15. Thank you, Graeme. I’m reading section 1 a little differently:

    publication in a journal published on the internet or publication on the radio or publication on TV or publication on the internet (i.e. blogs etc).

    So I wasn’t reading those items as different ways in which journals could be published, but as different types of publishing which were all covered by the section.

    But of course, IANAL!

    However, there’s an analysis from another lawyer here: SA Electoral amendments and anonymity online.

    I’m inclined to be very, very cautious at this stage.

  16. Graeme, Deborah;

    I think some more ambiguity comes from the statements which Atkinson himself has made, indicating the inclusion of Wikipedia and the Blogosphere.

    Electronic Frontiers have an article about just that:

    http://www.efa.org.au/2010/02/02/sa-electoral-amendments-and-anonymity-online/

  17. My apologies Deborah; off timing.

  18. Not at all, Daniel. Happy to have you commenting here. And I enjoyed your piece about this mess: Australian governance: censorship update.

  19. The money quotes from the piece Daniel and I both linked to:

    Mrs REDMOND: I know that the internet is a very broad term, but again I ask the question: will it apply to telecommunication by mobile phone? I would assume it is not caught by
    that. I wonder whether the term ‘internet’ is actually broad enough to capture everything that we presumably will be taking about like blogs, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and all the other things that could occur.

    The Hon. M.J. ATKINSON: Yes. We aim to catch web pages and, therefore, it would cover blog sites, Wikipedia and internet newspapers such as Adelaidenow, but we do not want to go into twittering because that is too much like individual communication over a mobile phone. So, that is where we are putting the boundary.

  20. Wow — is Atkinson basically tech-illiterate or engaging in a little *cough* strategic ambiguity? I can understand why you’re being cautious, Deborah, because five grand might be petty cash to Fairfax or News Corp, but a grand and change (plus costs) is a hell of a lot of money to gamble on a judge’s reading of a poorly drafted and unworkable law being the same as yours.

  21. Personally, I’d have said this was an admirably clear piece of legislation.

    The only sense in which it is poorly drafted in that someone wanted a law which covers ‘blogs and wikipedia when manifestly it does not.

  22. Holy . This really *should* be an election issue. Presumably, however, it doesn’t apply outside of SA, as other people have queried. Which makes the whole thing ridiculous.

    But much more than that, it’s really scary that such abominable legislation can be passed without comment. Seems like the rest of Australia should be shouting loudly about it – not just for you and your fellow SAian’s sake, but also because SA has a long history of starting legislative trends.

  23. Oops, HTML FAIL 101 – put the word “expletive” in angle brackets. *Facepalm*. That should have said “Holy {expletive}”.

  24. It’s not just the money, Craig. Over at Larvatus Prodeo, I commented:

    More than that, Adelaide is a small town. It’s entirely possible for pollies who don’t like what I say to just make things a little difficult for me – a quiet word in the ear of potential employers and city councils, should I ever want a new job, or planning permission, or whatever. Then there’s just the risk of being sued. That’s all in addition to the $1,250 fine.

    A little far-fetched maybe? But the Premier is currently suing Channel 7 and New Idea over the stories they published about Michelle Chantelois, and it’s hard to read his action as anything other than an attempt to shut them up. It’s about dignity, says Rann.

  25. Hmm…. lots of people here (i.e. not here on my blog, but here in Oz) seem to be very confused by it, and unsure of its significance. However, as I said above, I am not a lawyer, and even though I’ve had a bit of practice reading some specialised law, I usually find it quite daunting. So thank you, again, for your comments, Graeme.

  26. SRSLY, the A-G really does think that his law applies to bloggers. See the update on the post – I’ve added a transcript of an interview he gave today.

  27. Just read on No Right Turn that a good change is a comin’, yay!

  28. I’m not sure that it has anything to do with baby boomers. It’s more to do with pig ignorance, and that isn’t confined to those over 55.

  29. It’s not just the money, Craig.

    All fair points well made, Deborah. But I sure couldn’t pull twelve hundred bucks out of my butt…

    Still, I had to smile at Mike Rann’s concern about dignity — as you pointed out recently, Rann didn’t give enough of a damn about the dignity of opposition leader “Mrs” Isobel Redmond to use her choice of honorific. I’ve certainly never picked Australian politics as a particularly genteel or dignified field of endeavour.

  30. Pingback: Australian Governance: Censorship Update | Young Australian Skeptics