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Data retention Bill will have ‘chilling effect’ on journalists and press freedom, union warns

MEAA1-1Proposed laws requiring telecommunication companies to disclose details of phone calls to police have been branded as “outrageous attack on press freedom” by the union representing journalists, as it continued to wage war against draconian efforts to reform national security legislation.

The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) said the Telecommunications (Interceptions and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 will have a “chilling effect” on reporters and their ability to protect confidential sources.

The effect will be to discourage whistle blowers from coming forward amid fears they will later be identified and exposed, MEAA federal secretary Chris Warren warned.

The bill will demand that telecommunications service providers must keep information, or metadata, for two years and must be made available to police and other agencies.

Union unrest follows its condemnation of the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill which could see journalists and their sources jailed for up to 10 years for revealing information about a range of covert operations, authorised by the Attorney-General and classed as “special intelligence operations”.

Warren said the data retention Bill will realise fears first raised by the MEAA in 2012 when the union said phone intercept laws would “deter confidential sources and may lead to a culture of self-censorship”.

“Without public faith in a journalist’s promise to protect sources, much crucial information in the public interest would not come to light,” the MEAA wrote in its submission to the Parliamentary inquiry into reforms to national security legislation. “Any attempt to destroy this trust will result in fewer people speaking out and the public left with nothing but government spin, media stunts and government agencies free from scrutiny.”

Warren said the Bill, introduced today and which could become law this year, will turn the Australian population into “suspects”. It is the third bill proposed by the Government that will impact the working conditions of journalists, he said.

“There is considerable concern about the power of police and intelligence agencies to intercept communications. MEAA believes that substantial efforts must be made to protect and guarantee press freedom by acknowledging journalist privilege and the subsequent need to protect journalists’ confidential sources and information from exposure due to telecommunication interception,” Warren said.

“The haste with which the government is rushing through its three tranches of counter-terror measures is wrong. It is clear that all three Bills have been woefully drafted and contain appalling examples of overreach by government agencies into the lives of every Australia at the cost of freedoms that are part of the fabric of a healthy, functioning democracy. MEAA calls on the Australian parliament to ensure that there is a proper review of the counter-terror measures proposed that allows for a detailed public consultation and discussion.”

The information to be stored includes IP addresses of websites visited, but not the exact content of web browsing. Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull described metadata as “information about a communication but not its content”, stressing that access to content would require a warrant.

Warren also repeated union concerns over the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill No. 1, which could see journalists and sources jailed for a decade.

Responding to attempts by Attorney-General George Brandis to ease concerns of the media, Warren said: “It is abundantly clear that section 35P, as it is currently drafted, will seek to prosecute someone – whether it’s a legitimate whistleblower exposing wrongdoing or journalists who report the information.

“It is also abundantly clear that, as currently drafted, section 35P is an attack on freedom of expression and an assault on press freedom. And it is also clear that the Bill will also seek to punish media organisations who publish information “recklessly”.”

The bill calls for the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider the public interest before pursuing a prosecution. But Warren warned that what is considered in the public interest by the DPP may differ from that of a journalist or the public.

“The assurance of the Attorney-General of the day that he won’t prosecute a journalist is meaningless unless the law is changed from what it says now,” the MEAA federal secretary said. “Section 35P clearly needs to be amended to provide a broad exemption, one that protects whistleblowers, journalists and others who seek to bring matters of public interest to light.”

Steve Jones

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