Laws to protect journalists, whistleblowers and our democracy must be reformed

Laws to protect journalists, whistleblowers and our democracy must be reformed

The June 2019 AFP raids on Annika Smethurst’s home and the headquarters of the ABC should be the turning point to end law enforcement overreach and mass surveillance that damages Australia’s open democracy, the Human Rights Law Centre told a parliamentary inquiry.

Emily Howie, a Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the raids highlight the need for urgent law reform to protect public interest journalism by creating safe pathways for people to blow the whistle on government wrongdoing.

“Attacks on public interest whistleblowers and the free press strike at the heart of our democracy. Governments may be uncomfortable about journalists and whistleblowers exposing wrongdoing, but that’s not a good enough reason to silence them. No person is above the law in Australia. The government should take this opportunity to urgently protect and encourage people to come forward with information about abuses and wrongdoing,” said Ms Howie.

“Australians have a right to know what the government is doing in their name, and journalists have a right to do their jobs without fear of prosecution. If the laws operate to protect us from harm to national security then so be it, but these raids suggest they’re being used to protect the government from public embarrassment,” said Ms Howie.

The Human Rights Law Centre has told the inquiry that recent reports of law enforcement overreach on surveillance powers, such as reports the police unlawfully accessed peoples’, including journalists’, private metadata, demonstrate how urgently the scheme needs to be reined in.

“The metadata retention regime effectively gave the government the power to watch all of us, all of the time, but didn’t properly protect us from abuse of that power. This inquiry should urgently call for better safeguards to protect journalists, their sources and all of us – without it our democracy is damaged,” said Ms Howie.

The Human Rights Law Centre also recommended that amendments be made to the new secrecy and espionage laws that criminalise journalism and free speech.

“New espionage laws criminalise journalism and put us all at risk. The June raids highlight just how dangerous it has become to reveal information in the public interest if it also touches on anything supposedly linked to national security. It’s outrageous that journalists and their sources could face life imprisonment for revealing information that ultimately protects us all,” said Ms Howie.

Read the HRLC’s submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security here.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is conducting an inquiry into the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on freedom of the press.

Media contact:

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