In recent years, a Middle East-based organisation has been thinking about what it calls “the Grey Zone”. The term refers to the pluralist, open, multicultural space that is fundamental to the way a functioning democratic society works.
The Grey Zone allows us to live alongside different faiths without killing one another; it is the space that means we can have robust political debates without punching each other in the nose. It is the space defined by a robust defence of free speech.
The idea of the Grey Zone is absolutely central to a free press. An effective media can’t work without it. The Grey Zone is the space that journalists work in, interrogating all sides to any given story; questioning and challenging those in positions of power and authority. It allows the free flow of ideas, both good and bad, so that the solid ones prove their resilience, while the lousy ones get knocked into piles of intellectual rubble. It is the space that makes possible this and every other opinion piece you’ve ever read.
And the organisation that coined the term? It wasn’t any leftist pro-democracy group or human rights organisation. Nor was it some liberal academic institution. It was Islamic State.
IS has an English-language online magazine called Dabiq, and in 2015 it published a cover story calling for “The Extinction of the Grey Zone”.
For IS, pluralism, nuance and debate are antithetical to all it believes in. The article makes clear that there can be no room for questioning the theocrats in charge. Whatever is said must be followed, and any deviation is to be punished ruthlessly. Their world is black and white, where free speech, free thought and a free press are simply unacceptable.
The article was released soon after two brothers attacked the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, murdering 12 of its employees and injuring 11 others for publishing a series of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. The IS authors celebrated the slaughter as a blow against free speech and a free press and declared it to be a step towards the extinction of the Grey Zone.
But journalism hasn’t only been under assault from extremists. Governments the world over have been using national security to chip away at the space a free press traditionally regards as its own. In Turkey, journalists merely reporting what opposition groups say find themselves charged with terrorism offences; in Malaysia, despite the change of government, reporting “false news” can still land you in prison. (Unsurprisingly, it is the Malaysian government that has the final say over what counts as “false”.)
Even here in Australia, legislation passed in recent years to tighten our own security has perversely undermined media freedom, a system that has helped make us one of the most prosperous, secure, stable and successful democracies on the planet.
Whether it is the data retention laws that make it almost impossible to protect journalists’ sources; or the foreign fighters’ legislation that prevents the media from interrogating the ideas that drive extremism; or the latest tranche of national security legislation, each in their own way chips away at the Grey Zone.
Right now, as it grapples with the question of Chinese influence, the government is redrafting earlier, flawed versions of the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill that makes reporting on a host of national issues extraordinarily risky. As the latest draft was worded, it becomes an offence to damage national security, where “national security” is defined as anything that could cause harm or prejudice Australia’s political or economic relations with other countries.
Other secrecy offences are similarly vague. They prevent publication of any information (not just classified information) which harms “Australia’s interests”. Any critical reporting of government policy around trade, international relations, security and so on, all risk being seen as “harming Australia’s national interest” and putting reporters in prison.
Am I being dramatic? Perhaps, but those phrases are disturbingly close to the laws that the Egyptian authorities used to imprison me and my two al-Jazeera colleagues through 2014 and have been used repeatedly since then to shut down any reporting that questions or challenges the regime in Cairo or gives voice to the opposition. Reports suggest we will see the amended bill next week. We will need to look closely at the detail to see if the government has accepted the concerns of media groups
Defending that Grey Zone, and press freedom in particular, is why a group of concerned colleagues and I have joined together to form the Alliance for Journalists Freedom. The AJF recognises the need for a genuinely independent voice focussed purely on those issues across Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. We are also working with industry and academic institutions to create a research program to help us understand the changes that have been taking place and their impact on the way democracy works.
It will help, but it won’t make the slightest difference unless we all recognise the importance of defending our own Grey Zone and avoid doing the work of Islamic State for it or any actors which seek to undermine our democratic norms.
Peter Greste is a professor of journalism at the University of Queensland.