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Free speech under threat with ag-gag laws

by Ben Latham.

INSPIRED BY legislation introduced in several states in America, politicians in NSW and elsewhere are currently discussing establishing ‘ag-gag’ laws, which specifically seek to censor investigations that expose animal cruelty and abuse in factory farms.

Most cases of animal cruelty on Australian farms are exposed by undercover investigations by activists who covertly film abusive farming operations before releasing the footage to the media to engage public awareness and debate.

Federal Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce and the NSW Minister for Agriculture Katrina Hodgkinson, both National Party members, have told media in recent months they oppose such means to inform the public about their food supply, calling it invasion of privacy and dangerous, and welcoming the legislative route to shut it down.

Since 2012, undercover has been the modus operandi of Animal Liberation ACT and NSW – revealing the cruelty of pig farms by exposing 17 piggeries with the closure of two [Wally’s piggery near Yass being one such case].

US journalist and author Will Potter, who specialises in animal rights and environmental movements, has presented a lecture series around the country with the Australian think-tank Voiceless to raise awareness of the civil liberties danger of ‘ag-gag’ laws. According to Potter who was recently in Canberra, if the public does not stand up now, these harmful laws are not a question of if, but when.

“There’s already discussion right now of trying to bring those US-style ag-gag laws to Australia. When I learned about that, we started the tour because this is a historic time to learn from the US and be proactive, and to stop this before it becomes law,” Potter explained.

A major element of most ag-gag legislation, and a key component of what is being discussed in Australia, is mandatory reporting, whereby anybody in possession of video footage depicting animal abuse must turn the evidence immediately over to police. This occurs within 48 hours and is aimed to prevent the material being given to the media, ensuring that the controversial treatment of livestock is, literally, kept in the dark.

“Also turning over that footage so quickly is an attempt by the industry to say an incident is just an isolated case, rather than building an investigation over a period of weeks or months. Then the owners can pretend that this is just a few bad apples, a few bad workers rather than taking responsibility,” Potter said.

Aim to keep media and consumers in the dark and keep sympathetic workers out of factory farms.

Another feature of ‘ag-gag’ legislation being proposed in Australia is the requirement for factory farm employees to disclose any association with animal rights organisations or risk prosecution and arrest. “It has a chilling effect on animal activism, it makes people afraid.

“Under those laws if you apply for a job at a farm and you don’t disclose that you’re a member of the RSPCA or Voiceless, you can be prosecuted or even sent to jail. It sends a very clear message that the industry is trying to keep people who are actually sympathetic towards animal protection from working in their facilities.”

At issue is the Australian public’s fundamental right to understand and discuss the conditions and processes by which the food we consume ends up on our plates.

“What we are seeing is a coordinated attack on freedom of information and free speech,” said Legal Counsel for Voiceless, Emmanuel Giuffre.

“The devil will be in the detail of these proposed laws, but it is evident that legislation is being used to gag animal activists, the media and anyone else who asks, ‘Just what is happening on Australian factory farms?’”

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