Press freedom threatened by new Australian bill

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Concerns are growing over an Australian government bill which would impose restrictions on journalists and whistleblowers, potentially resulting in jail sentences.

Puiblishers' group NewsMediaWorks says the bill would seriously limit the ability of journalists to report and gather information on stories relating to national security and defence, making it an offence for media to even obtain classified information, according to a joint submission by publishers to a federal parliamentary committee.

Proposed changes to current law would see possible jail time for breaches of secrecy law raised from seven to 20 years.

Publishers are asking for an exemption for journalists who are reporting in the national interest.

The government argues the bill is necessary to crack down on foreign interference and espionage and would not have serious impact on journalists or whistleblowers.

NewsMediaWorks is one of 15 media companies, including News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media, the West Australian, AAP, and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which were party to the joint submission, stating they would not support the bill until exemptions were made for journalists.

In the submission, publishers explained in-depth the implications of the bill

"The proposed legislation criminalises all steps of news reporting, from gathering and researching of information to publication/communication, and applies criminal risk to journalists, other editorial staff and support staff that knows of the information that is now an offence to 'deal' with, hold and communicate," they said.

"We reiterate at the conclusion of this submission the necessity for a robust general public interest/news reporting defence for both the secrecy and espionage elements of the bill. We also put that without a robust public interest /news reporting defence we do not support the passage of the bill."

The vague wording of the legislation, which includes phrases such as "harm to Australia's interests" was queried, with media organisations asking for further clarification. There are concerns that without these changes, legislation might impinge on free speech.

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Margaret Stone, also picked up on the broad terminology in the proposed legislation, supporting publishers' calls for change.

"The term 'lawful direction' is not defined in the bill. Nor is there any specific limitation on who may make these directions or the content of directions beyond the broad subject matter to which they must relate (being the retention, use or disposal of the relevant information, which could conceivably cover most dealings with it)," Ms Stone said.

News Corp Australia head of government affairs Georgia-Kate Schubert questioned whether the laws would extend to digital platforms. If not, the bill would be a heavy imposition on print media.

Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter claims that media reporting of the bill has been "sensationalist" and inaccurate.

Mr Porter said that while some amendments to may be considered, they would not be wide-spread.

He said the legislation was simply "about having the proper and modern disincentives in place for people to deal with information in a way that's contrary to our national interests".

Johan Lidberg, Associate Professor of School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University, described the Bill as "draconian", stating it "is an overreach in many respects".

"This makes an already heavy-handed whistleblower regime from an international perspective even more draconian. It is sure to lose Australia several places on the Press Freedom Index if implemented as suggested," Mr Lidberg said an article for The Conversation.

"The current fear-driven security environment has made it much harder for investigative journalists to hold governments and security agencies to account. This is partly due to anti-terror and security laws making it harder for whistleblowers to act.

"Add to this the truly awesome powers of mass surveillance making it increasingly difficult for investigative journalists to grant anonymity to sources that require it for their own safety, and you end up with a very complex journalist-source situation," he said.

News media also has taken an individual stance against legislation through their editorial and opinion pages.

An editorial published in The Australian, said the government's Cold War-style laws would have unintended consequences.

"ASIO's assessment that the prevalence of foreign interference and espionage in Australia is greater now than during the Cold War points to the need for more apposite treason laws that criminalise intrusions into our national life by foreign powers. The Turnbull government must be wary of unintended consequences, however," it said.

"As they stand, the proposed amendments to national security legislation could even work against security by undermining the ability of news media to report matters of public interest."

Federal political reporter for The West Australian, Nick Evans, argued that government secrecy cannot forgo transparency.

"The new legislation seeks to target the kind of new hostile activity which clearly undermines the wellbeing of the overwhelming majority of Australians, but which falls well short of previous legal definitions of espionage and sabotage," said Mr Evans.

"But where the legislation falls down is in its reflection of growing governmental - and that's not a criticism confined to the current government -- love of secrecy, and disdain of public criticism of policy and practice.

"Increased transparency and an independent watchdog did much to re-establish the trust those agencies enjoy today.

"If the concerns of watchdogs suggest this legislation could erode that transparency and undermine that trust, their warnings should be heeded and the laws amended," he said.

with NewsMediaWorks

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