The growing threat to press freedom posed by laws that fail to properly protect journalists and their sources has been highlighted by a new report by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
Dr Aruna Sathanapally, a director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the report illustrates how successive laws passed in the name of national security have weakened Australia’s commitment to a free press.
"Journalists must be free to report mistakes, wrongdoing and cover-ups in government and in the private sector. A free press is a vital mechanism of accountability. This isn’t just something to be tolerated by those in power — in a robust democracy, it must be fiercely protected," said Dr Sathanapally.
The report surveys the laws affecting journalists’ ability to obtain information and publish stories in the public interest.
It paints a picture of national security overreach that endangers every step of reporting: by putting pressure on potential whistleblowers who are considering giving journalists information, by threatening to expose the communications between that source and the journalist, and with the threat of jail time for journalists who publish that information.
The report criticises metadata retention laws which allow a number of agencies to see Australians’ telecommunications records, including who people have spoken to on the phone and where they’ve been.
Although journalists’ information has some protection, there is none for the person providing the information. Authorities don’t even need a warrant before looking at a source's phone records.
Currently there are a number of concerning security laws either before the Parliament or foreshadowed by the Australian Government, including:
- Secrecy laws: Secrecy laws introduced into the Parliament in December 2017 could result in journalists going to jail for up to 20 years for publishing government information. While the Attorney-General has proposed amendments, which would tighten protections for journalists, people who expose government misconduct are still at risk of imprisonment.
- Espionage laws: Overly broad new espionage laws would send people to jail for life for sharing certain information — with no defence for journalists or public interest disclosures.
- Encryption laws: The Government has foreshadowed a law that would give it the power to access the content of encrypted communications. This law could be misused — either to identify a whistleblower or pursue a journalist for a story the government does not like.
Taking these developments together, journalists and their sources face steep criminal penalties for sharing information. Identifying the source behind a story has become much easier for law enforcement agencies, without adequate safeguards for public interest disclosures," said Dr Sathanapally.
"In these circumstances, you would need to be very brave to approach a journalist with information about wrongdoing within the government."
The report also highlights concerns about the culture of the Australian Government and its respect for the free press. In 2017, it was revealed the Australian Federal Police (AFP) had accessed a journalist’s metadata without obtaining a warrant — contrary to the law.
"We urge the Government and the Parliament to tread carefully when making laws that affect our fundamental democratic freedoms and our ability to keep those in power honest and accountable. The Government needs to take the time and care to get secrecy and surveillance laws right. The laws before Parliament at the moment need to be seriously reworked," said Dr Sathanapally.
The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 was introduced on 7 December 2017. Submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security were due on 22 January 2018.
"These deeply concerning laws were put to Parliament, with no meaningful consultation. This is whole of Government legislation — it affects all information held by all types of government agencies, and fundamental aspects of our Criminal Code," said Dr Sathanapally.
"Rapid-fire legislating doesn’t work when we need to balance important national security interests and the fabric of our democracy."
For interviews or further information please call:
Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519