Dr Chau Chak Wing won the case against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Fairfax Media (now owned by Nine) and investigative journalist Nick McKenzie over a 2017 episode of ABC’s Four Corners program titled “Power and Influence”. The product of a five-year joint investigation by the ABC, The Ageand The Sydney Morning Herald, the program examined the issue of Chinese foreign interference in Australian democracy. Chau alleged the program described him as a “Chinese agent” who was guilty of espionage, bribery and buying political influence.
The ABC described the program as “raising matters vital to the public interest” and expressed its “disappointment” at the decision. “This case has again starkly demonstrated fundamental problems with Australian defamation law and pre-trial procedures being heavily skewed in favour of a plaintiff”, said the ABC.
An April 2020 press freedom survey conducted by MEAA found that 89% of journalists believed the difficulty of reporting was increased by Australia’s defamation laws, with 32% of respondents dropping a news story in the previous year due to fears of defamation action.
In July 2020, Australia’s Attorneys-Generals agreed to adopt reforms to defamation law, to be enacted during 2021. The reforms, which include a new public interest defense and the introduction of a serious harm threshold, aim to “strike a better balance between protecting individual reputations and freedom of expression, particularly regarding matters of public interest.”
MEAA’s Media Section Federal President Marcus Strom said: “The matter highlights the difficulty journalists operate under negotiating Australia’s restrictive defamation laws. Lengthy court cases and massive damages payouts are crippling to media organisations. Amendments to the uniform national defamation law regime will hopefully go some way to ameliorating that threat”
Australia’s defamation regime was a concern for the public’s right to know and press freedom in Australia, according to MEAA.
The IFJ said: “This case has dire consequences for press freedom in Australia, as public interest reporting is silenced and journalists are increasingly under financial and political threat. The IFJ urges Australian legislators to swiftly enact defamation reform and ensure media freedom is protected.”