Intelligence Committee calls for overhaul of new secrecy and espionage offences

Intelligence Committee calls for overhaul of new secrecy and espionage offences

The Federal Parliament’s intelligence committee has today handed down its report on the Government’s proposed espionage and secrecy laws, after an inquiry revealed serious concerns over freedom of expression shared by the press, the legal profession and civil society.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has stated its support for the goal of addressing foreign interference, but recommended 60 substantial changes to the proposed laws before Parliament pass them.

Director of Legal Advocacy, Dr Aruna Sathanapally, said the Human Rights Law Centre would be looking very carefully at the details of the recommendations.

“In their current form, the new laws pose an unacceptable threat to Australians’ freedom of expression and the freedom of the press. It is unsurprising – and entirely welcome – that the Committee has made such extensive recommendations for amendments before giving its endorsement. This is not an unqualified green light – far from it.”  

The Human Right Law Centre gave evidence to the Committee that the broad definitions in the proposed laws risked capturing whistle-blowers acting in the public interest and creating a culture of secrecy across government. New espionage offences also risk criminalising global cooperation on global issues such as poverty reduction, migration and climate change.

“Where criminal offences attach to the sharing of information about government or political matters, we need to tread carefully. We cannot risk chilling legitimate conversations about global problems amongst civil society, or cracking down on those who would expose wrongdoing in the public interest,” said Dr Sathanapally.

The Committee’s recommendations include replacing the 20 year prison sentences proposed by the government with a maximum penalty of 7 years for offences involving the communication of information, and 3 years for other types of conduct.

“The dramatic increase in prison sentences in the bill, for unauthorised sharing of government information that may have nothing to do with national security, was clearly unjustified,” said Dr Sathanapally.

In March, the Attorney-General recognised the serious problems with the bill and proposed amendments to narrow the criminal offences for handling government information and strengthen defences for journalists. Those amendments still left whistle-blowers exposed to lengthy terms of imprisonment, and did not address the suite of new espionage and sabotage offences that could be used to arrest protestors and activists.

“A healthy democracy must ensure that steps taken to deal with foreign espionage don’t cripple the democratic processes we should be protecting: our right to communicate freely on political matters, to protest, to hold our government accountable.”

The Human Rights Law Centre’s submission to the Committee is here, and its supplementary submission is here.

For interviews or further information please call:

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519