Australian Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner is seen in Washington, D.C., on February 24, 2018. The Northern Territory government recently denied access to the NT Independent. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)

Australia’s Northern Territory denies news website NT Independent access to government events

New York, October 8, 2020 — The Australian Northern Territory government should immediately grant the NT Independent news website equal access to government events and conferences, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The Northern Territory government has refused to allow the NT Independent, which covers politics and local news in the territory, access to press conferences and media events since shortly after the outlet was launched in March, despite the outlet possessing a press accreditation issued by the territorial government, according to Chris Walsh, the website’s editor, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, and a report by Australian public broadcaster ABC.

Walsh said the government has refused to respond to repeated requests by the outlet to resolve the issue.

The NT Independent reported that, in an April email, the Northern Territory government said that it did not recognize the outlet “as an independent and reputable news media outlet given the nature of ownership by Owen Pike.”

Walsh told CPJ that he had full editorial independence from Pike; Pike also told the NT Independent that Walsh has editorial control, according to the outlet’s report. Pike is the former head of the NT Manufacturers Council, a nongovernmental trade organization, according to ABC.

“Preventing the NT Independent from attending events and questioning public officials sets a concerning precedent in which the Northern Territory government is allowed to cherry-pick which news outlets have access to information that should be freely available,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher. “The Northern Territory government should respect press freedom instead of punishing media outlets in retribution for their ownership.”

Pike was fired from the NT Manufacturers Council in 2019 after coming under criticism for his Facebook comment on a female government minister’s page, according to ABC. He also previously ran a Facebook page that criticized the local government, and published at least one derogatory post concerning a gay nightclub in the area, according to the ABC report; the page has since been taken down.

Pike denied allegations of running a “hate page,” and said the Facebook page was not linked to the NT Independent, the outlet reported. In an interview with ABC, Pike denied that his Facebook comments were sexist, but said he had been intentionally controversial in an effort to get the government’s attention.

In its April email quoted by the NT Independent, the Northern Territory government stated that Pike ran “a concerted online hate page against several members of government, including repeated derogatory and sexist references to female MLAs [Member of the Legislative Assembly]. Therefore we have no faith its integrity or independence can be guaranteed.”

A spokesperson for the Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment via email. At a press conference in June, Gunner said he did not support “web pages sponsored by hate pages.”

The Northern Territory is governed by the Labor Party; the opposition Country Liberal Party condemned the ban on the NT Independent, as have other local media freedom advocates, according to ABC.

Walsh told CPJ that, in June, a press conference location was moved after the NT Independent tried to attend, and in September, a staffer for Administrator Vicki O’Halloran, the Queen’s representative in the region, required NT Independent reporters to leave a government ceremony they had attended to cover. Walsh said the ban appears to extend across the region’s government, as several Northern Territory departments have refused requests for comment or information from NT Independent reporters.

“It’s frustrating for everyone. We’re trying to get crucial information to the public and the government’s refusal to comment or release information ultimately hurts the public more than us,” Walsh said. “They have a right to know what their government is doing and deserve an explanation of their actions.”

The NT Independent has lodged a complaint with the Northern Territory’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, according to the outlet.