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Journalists’ union denounces terror laws which could see reporters jailed

Warren

Warren

The union representing journalists has denounced proposed laws giving more powers to security agencies, but which allow journalists to be jailed for up to ten years, as an outrageous attack on press freedom in Australia.

The federal secretary of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) Chris Warren today criticised the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill arguing it had been rushed through parliament without sufficient debate.

“This Bill has been rushed through in undue haste without proper discussion or debate of the implications it has in denying long-held freedoms in Australia,” said Warren.

“In a healthy functioning democracy this assault on the public’s right to know and the penalties applied to the media for scrutinising power must be condemned. The Bill muzzles the media from doing its job.”

The bill allows journalists and whistleblowers to be jailed for revealing information about a range of covert operations, authorised by the Attorney-General and classed as “special intelligence operations”.

Section 35P of the Bill imposes a jail term of up to 10 years for anyone, including journalists, who make an “unauthorised disclosure of information”, a law which the union says criminalises the work of journalists if they receive information about a special intelligence operation, particularly from whistleblowers or “trusted insiders” .

“The Bill criminalises legitimate journalist reporting of matters in the public interest. It overturns the public’s right to know,” he said.

“It persecutes and prosecutes whistleblowers and journalists who are dealing with whistleblowers. It imposes ludicrous penalties of up to 10 years jail on journalists. It imposes outrageous surveillance on journalists and the computer networks of their media employers. It treats every Australian as a threat and denies their rights of access to information and freedom of expression.”

Supporters of the laws argue that they are similar to existing laws that have long applied to anyone who reveals information about the Australian Federal Police’s “controlled operations”. However, Warren argued that the new legislation was a major expansion of the powers of authorities to jail reporters and expressed concern that the Coalition and Labor were ignoring the warnings of media organisations and MEAA.

The union made a submission regarding the bill, which specifically opposed the provision which could see journalists and whistleblowers imprisoned.

“The parliament has now passed legislation that hands extraordinary powers to the government and its spy agencies while conveniently preventing legitimate scrutiny of those powers. At a time when parliament should be defending and promoting freedoms in our society it has instead chosen to strip them away,” said Warren.

MEAA has repeatedly raised concerns over the measures and is also concerned about a new amendment in which journalists could face up to 10-years’ jail if they identify an ASIO officer. The union argued that this is unfair, noting that under specific elements of the law any wrongdoing by an ASIO officer could result in only two years jail while a journalist who reported on the officer’s abuse of power could potentially face five times that penalty.

Warren said parliament needed to at least consider sunset provisions on these laws. “At the very least there must be a sunset clause on these extraordinary powers; an improved and rigorous process of independent oversight and review; an understanding that denying the public the right to know what governments do in our name is an appalling assault on democracy; and protections in place to ensure journalists and the media are not treated as criminals for doing their job,” he said.

“The outcome of this legislation for journalists is two-fold: a muzzle has been applied to the media that will have a chilling effect on legitimate journalism while at the same time journalists will be compelled to resort to the tools and techniques of espionage to protect their news sources and stories from being interfered with by the government and its agencies.

“Those two outcomes are not healthy in any democracy. But they are even more galling when the government responsible claims to be implementing these in order to protect our freedoms and our way of life.

“As Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a former journalist, has said in relation to the arrest, detention and jailing of Australian journalist Peter Greste in Cairo: ‘Peter Greste would have been reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood, not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Because that’s what Australian journalists do.’ That distinction about the work that journalists do needs to be considered by the Australian Parliament and should have been recognised in this Bill.”

Nic Christensen 

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