Journalism is under threat in Victoria.

The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) announced on Tuesday that it had “positive discussions” with Victoria Police in relation to media accreditation requirements for journalists who attend public protests and rallies.

Public protest is currently illegal in Victoria, as a result of repressive restrictions introduced under the guise of combatting a small COVID-19 outbreak, which currently stands at just 63 locally acquired cases. The Victorian government first banned protest last year, but restrictions on gatherings have since been eased and, now, reintroduced.

Victoria’s totalitarian laws have allowed police to brutally crack down on the public. After Black Lives Matter protest organisers were fined by Victoria Police in June 2020,1 the clampdown escalated in September 2020, when protesters2 and protest planners3 were arrested. In a separate incident, police reportedly confiscated a ‘free Melbourne’ sign from two friends who were obeying lockdown rules.4 The police claimed that protest itself was illegal, even if it was not in violation of restrictions on gatherings.

In February this year, two Herald Sun journalists were arrested and handcuffed by Victoria Police while reporting on a protest, despite them wearing media accreditation cards and identifying themselves as press.5 Protesters were arrested once again during an anti-lockdown protest on 29 May.6

In a statement released on 1 June, the MEAA stated that it “understood the need” for Victoria Police to have the ability to distinguish between “legitimate working journalists” and members of the public at protests, and indicated that it had co-operated with the police in order to protect its members. MEAA membership cards will now be accepted by the police “for identification purposes” at protests,7 after Victoria Police introduced a new policy regarding media accreditation requirements.

The statement also referred to a ‘tip sheet for journalists on covering protests’ produced by the MEAA in conjunction with the Victoria Police Media & Corporate Communications Department.

“Over the past few years,” the tip sheet begins,8 “Victoria Police has seen an increase in hostile and at times violent protests throughout the state.” This language is almost identical to that used in a Victoria Police statement regarding, ironically, its arrest of journalists in February.9 It is a strong indication that the tip sheet was, to some extent, written directly by Victoria Police and, seemingly, published without amendment by the MEAA.

In addition, the tip sheet claims (sans any evidence) that “Victoria Police have also seen an increased number of protesters claim to be media in order to avoid police enforcement of the health directions.” The sheet makes no reference to the brutality of Victoria Police. Instead, it claims that during a protest, “the number one priority [of Victoria Police] is the safety of everyone in the area.” It is not clear why the MEAA decided to distribute police propaganda to its members.

The MEAA’s capitulation to Victoria Police may be beneficial to its members, but it represents a tragedy for journalism and civil liberties.

Journalists who are not members of the MEAA will not be afforded special status. Meanwhile, members of the public who document police activity at protests will be hindered by the MEAA’s eagerness to assist police in distinguishing between “legitimate working journalists” and the public.

The MEAA’s apparent intention to become a gatekeeper for “legitimate” journalism, whatever that is supposed to mean, is a threat to journalism itself. Its willingness to accept increasingly authoritarian actions by the police, in exchange for special treatment, is a threat to all of society.