Journalists, newspapers, media unions and politicians have spoken out strongly against the federal governments amendments to national security laws that could land journalists or whistleblowers in jail.
The Australian based Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the worlds leading newspaper body The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers based in Europe, the Paris based Reporters Without Borders have all publicly criticised the amendments to the act which passed in both houses of Parliament on October 1.
The amendments in question, Paragraph 35P, entitled “Unauthorised disclosure of Information” states: “(1) a person commits an offence if (a) the person discloses information and (b) the information relates to a special intelligence operation”.
A limited group of politicians have also opposed the Amendment, though these objections came mostly from the Greens- Senator Scott Ludlum introduced amendments but were voted down, and Liberal Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm also stood against the amendments.
Up until the 12th of October, the only member from the Labor Party who had spoken against the amendments was West Australian backbencher Melissa Parke from the left faction.
However, high profile labor figure Anthony Albanese, also from the left faction, told Sky News that he thought the government had overstepped the mark. “I don’t believe there has been enough scrutiny. I believe the media laws are draconian when we talk about potential penalties of five or 10 years jail for exposing what might be an error made by the security agencies,” Albanese said.
“I believe our agencies, including Asio, do a great job for this nation…but its also the case in a democratic country like ours- we’re talking about fighting for freedom, it’s important to ensure freedom is protected and not given up.”
While some have suggested that amendments to the security bill are in relation to recent discussion and action over terrorism, the amendments have been planned for a longer period of time.
Reporters Without Borders wrote in July, when the amendments were first introduced into the Senate by Attorney-General George Brandis that:
“The goal of the bill appears to be to avoid the emergence of an Australian Edward Snowden…The ABC published some of the documents leaked by Snowden showing that the Australian intelligence service had tapped the phones of Indonesian leaders including that of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.”
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance expressed a similar sentiment:“This Bill criminalises legitimate journalist reporting on matters in the public interest. It overturns the public’s right to know.
“It persecutes and prosecutes whistleblowers and journalists who are dealing with whistleblowers. It imposes ludicrous penalties of up to 10 years jail on journalists.
“It imposes outrageous surveillance on journalists and the computer networks of their media employers.
“It treats every Australian as a threat.”
While politicians of both major parties in Australia seem to have largely closed ranks on this issue and support the measures, journalists on both the left and right disagree with the new laws.
The ABC’s program QandA that aired on the 13th of October revealed that the issue had become journalists versus politicians.
Both Labor MP Kate Ellis and Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer agreed that the laws were necessary.
Foreign Editor of the Australian Greg Sheridan, usually seen as right of centre, was strongly opposed to the new laws arguing that they would restrict journalist’s ability to write in the public interest.
“Section 35P which provides for the jailing of journalists for five years and in certain circumstances 10, is a very significant misjudgment and overreach,” he said.
Sheridan continued: “I think both the government and opposition are at fault here. It’s a very bad law because it gives the government the power to declare that you can’t write about something forever- that’s wicked and excessive power.”
Attorney-General George Brandis, who has been spear heading the reforms, said on the 14th of October that it is necessary for Asio to have these powers.
“Think for, for instance, of the covert penetration of a terrorist cell. To make it unlawful to disclose that which, by its very nature, must remain secret does not seem unreasonable. To suggest otherwise fails the commonsense test,” Brandis said.
He also said that “belated” concerns have come from media organisations.
“That complaint has come not just from the usual suspects of the paranoid fantasist left, but from reputable conservative commentators as well,” he said.
Though these concerns have not been belated, because in August, most of Australia’s media organisations, under banner Your Right to Know spoke against the proposal.
Your Right to Know, which included AAP, ABC, APN, ASTRA, Bauer Media, Commercial Radio Australia, Fairfax Media, Free TV, MEAA, News Corp Australia, SBS and the West Australian said in a statement:
“The insertion of proposed section 35P could potentially see journalists jailed for undertaking and discharging their legitimate role in a modern democratic society- reporting in the public interest.”
It continued: “Such an approach is untenable, and must not be included in the legislation. This alone is more than adequate reason to abandon the proposal as the proposed provision significantly curtails freedom of speech and reporting in the public interest.”
While it will be difficult to tell what the consequences of these laws will be in the long term, the concern raised by so many domestic and international media organisations suggests that many feel threatened by the new powers and rightly so.
However, the government and opposition look unlikely to budge on the issue and with ongoing overseas and domestic security operations labeled under terrorism, it would appear that they wont any time soon either.
Only time will tell if these laws are put into action against journalists or whistleblowers, though even then, the nature of them suggests that we may never find out anyway.