Security laws attack Australia’s press freedom

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joins its affiliate the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) in describing the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill No 1 as an outrageous attack on press freedom in Australia.

The amendment bill was ‘urgently’ pushed through the Senate receiving 44 votes to 12 on the night of Thursday 25 September with bipartisan support from the Labor Party. The amendments which include imposing up to 10 years in jail for journalists for ‘unauthorised disclosure of information’, means that journalists and media organisations would be susceptible to between 5 to 10 years in jail sentences for any ‘disclosure by any person’ and ‘persons who are recipients of unauthorised disclosure of information, should they engage in any subsequent disclosure’. These changes now place legitimate reporting by journalists in the public interest under threat from extraordinary powers granted to Australia’s spy agencies.

For example, the 2013 news story about the phone-tapping of the wife of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono by Australia’s spy agencies may now attract a 10-year jail term.

Other issues of concern raised by MEAA include the amendment that can deem journalists and their employers to be a ‘third party’ if they interview persons of interest to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). The changes to the definition of ‘computer’ can also have implications for people and organisations deemed ‘third parties’. “As a third party, the journalist’s computer and their media organization’s computer network could be monitored, have information taken and ‘disrupted’”. Journalists can also face 10 years in jail for identifying an ASIO officer.

MEAA federal secretary, Christopher Warren 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,”

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

IFJ Asia Pacific acting director Jane Worthington echoed the comments of Warren saying: “Press freedom is a vital pillar of Australia’s democracy and these new laws work to not only weaken this foundation but muzzle the Australian media. The new laws work to intimidate journalists and threaten their practices in reporting.”

“We, along with MEAA, call on the government to rethink the amendments and allow thorough consultation and debate so that the new powers provided to the government do not undermine the cherished and long-defended liberties of Australia’s press freedom.”

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0946 

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries

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