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Australia to reform media access laws

world Updated: Mar 24, 2009 12:02 IST

Australia on Tuesday moved to overhaul strict privacy laws which allow information to be withheld from the media if it has the potential to embarrass the government.

Under the draft reform, requests for material from official agencies and departments could no longer be refused on the grounds they could embarrass the administration or lead to misinterpretation of its activities.

Exceptions would also be removed to the release of material which could create confusion or "unnecessary debate", in the most sweeping changes to Australia's press freedom laws in 27 years.

"These reforms will change the law, but they will also demonstrate the government's commitment to culture change, a shift from the culture of secrecy we saw under the old government to one of transparency," said John Faulkner, the special minister of state.

Reform of the laws -- including the scrapping of application costs and reduction of the off-limits period for cabinet records from 30 years to 20 years -- were part of centre-left leader Kevin Rudd's 2007 election bid. Australia's major media organisations ran a two-year campaign against the Freedom of Information laws, arguing they were used by the conservative administration of former prime minister John Howard to achieve secrecy and censorship.

Faulkner said the Rudd government would establish an information publication scheme, requiring ministerial offices and departments to regularly disclose information to the public.

"These draft bills form a cornerstone of the government's commitment to enhancing accountability and transparency in government," he said.