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Getting serious

Getting serious

Counter-terrorism and protecting journalism: Associate Professor Anne Aly on not shutting up
by Nicole Hamer

“I worked bloody hard to get where I am. I’m not going to let them shut me up.”

Dr Anne (Azza) Aly, Curtin University Associate Professor for radicalisation and counter terrorism, is one of Australia’s pre-eminent experts in her field. She was the speaker for Women in Media’s most recent event, a night of thought-provoking discussion about counter terrorism, and the threat posed to journalistic freedom by the Federal Government’s security response.

Hosted in the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University, the event gave over 100 journalists, media professionals and students the added bonus of viewing artwork from the Carrolup School, created in the 1950s by Aboriginal children from the Stolen Generations.

Opening the evening’s formal events, The Australian newspaper’s senior reporter Andrew Burrell launched a local Free Speech campaign jointly sponsored by WiMWA and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

“While this might just seem like a black and white sticker, the issues it raises are written for journalists and for our industry,” Burrell said. “My understanding of the sticker is that it was created out of the feeling that the industry wasn’t responding to the threats facing journalists just going about their job.”

Among those threats, he said, were the Federal government’s proposed data retention laws that could make it difficult for journalists to keep confidential their sources. He said experience overseas shows data surveillance and access powers are in fact targeting journalists.

“In Britain, their Interception of Communications Commissioner’s office found that police had accessed journalists’ phones and emails more than 600 times in three years.”

In the main discussion mediated by Sky News’ presenter Ashleigh Gillon, guest speaker Dr Aly noted that while $130 million had been devoted to counter terrorism by the Government, just $13.4 million of that was available to community groups and expert bodies to conduct counter radicalisation programs and promote anti-terrorist extremism messages.

She said most of the money was spent on defence and stricter legislative methods to catch terrorists and enforce greater surveillance. She suggested that law enforcement agencies already had more power than journalists to find the information they needed to undertake investigations.

Dr Aly is the author of four books on radicalisation, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism, including her most recent book Terrorism and Global Security: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. She has more than 50 other publications to her name, including Illegitimate: When Moderate Muslims Speak Out, and she contributes to The Guardian and The Conversation. She has also worked in senior policy and management roles in the Western Australian government. She was born in Egypt and is a follower of the Muslim faith.

Sky News journalist and Newsday host Ashleigh Gillon interviewED Associate Professor Anne Aly at the recent Women in Media event, Getting Serious.

Gillon directed the discussion toward the media’s response after the beheading of a journalist by Da’esh (Dr Aly’s preferred term to describe Islamic State). The event, and other beheadings, sparked worldwide horror and condemnation, but also raised questions about how the media should visually report terrorism-related stories.

Dr Aly said journalists were often placed in a very difficult position. “A responsible media will report the news,” she said. “It’s about information and it’s about people knowing what’s happening. On the other hand, news has also become entertainment.”

Dr Aly said even if the media did not broadcast footage of a beheading it would still be widely disseminated through the internet and social media. “I think there needs to be some judgement with how much you show, but I’m not fully convinced of the argument that the media shouldn’t show it. The fact is, if you don’t show it, how do we counter it?”

The ‘Cherish Freedom, Defend Journalism’ sticker was brought back into focus as Dr Aly expressed her concern that freedom of speech in Australia was at stake.

“Australia has introduced since 9/11 the most laws and legislative amendments around terrorism than any other Western country, yet we are fortunate to not face the same threat (as other nations).”

She said the metadata legislation would require telephone companies and internet service providers to collect data from all of their customers and store the information for two years. It had enormous repercussions for the future of journalism in Australia, and government and officials opting to pass the legislation failed to recognise that journalistic freedom was at stake. Or possibly it was a deliberate ploy: “I think it’s more and more about trying to turn Australia into a police state.”

According to the MEAA, the data retention bill would undermine the “crucial ethical obligation” of journalists to protect the identity and information of confidential sources. It would enable government agencies to hunt through journalists’ metadata, and potentially reveal confidential sources.

Dr Aly agreed. “Saving journalistic freedom is something we all need to get behind, because it’s not just journalistic freedom at stake here,” she says. “This is free speech, this is also about the very values that make us a democracy.”

On the issue of young Muslims, born and bred in Australia, being enticed to leave and go and fight for Da’esh or ISIS, Dr Aly said the issue should not be characterised simply as a security problem.

“I think the first thing we need to do as a nation is recognise that this is a human issue and a social issue,” she said. “This is about people dying and families losing their sons.

“You might have an opinion that these are people who deserve to go over there and die. You might not like it. You might think they deserve everything they get. But these are kids. They are younger than my sons, a lot of them. There are families being left behind. There are families completely devastated.”

Reflecting on the Martin Place siege, Dr Aly said many members of the Islamic faith were frightened to identify themselves as Muslim, including women who felt compelled to remove their hijab while travelling on public transport.

She applauded the Twitter hashtag #illridewithyou that was created by a non-Muslim woman from Brisbane. It resulted in thousands of people, Muslim and non-Muslim, showing their support for Muslims in their community.

“It was a great moment in Australia’s history, and it made me very proud to be Australian,” Dr Aly told the Women in Media audience. “[The Martin Place siege] could have created so much disharmony and disunity.”

As the evening’s discussion came to an end, Dr Aly earned warm applause as she described the backlash, criticism, abuse, twitter trolls and even death threats she has been subjected to for speaking out on terrorism issues.

However, she said, that made her even more determined to speak out.

“Why should my right to speak, my expertise be marginalised just because I’m a woman, or because I’m Muslim? I have something important to contribute and I worked bloody hard to get to where I am. And I’m not going to let them shut me up for that. They’re messing with the wrong girl.”

Nicole Hamer is a third-year journalism student. Reporting on the issues that affect all of us day-to-day is a strong focus of Nicole’s journalism. She is passionate about writing, reporting and engaging with the news and current affairs in print, online and broadcast, and would like to work for 60 Minutes, or a similar program.