By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
The Australian Government has opted for censorship and secrecy over scrutiny and natural justice with its latest national security bill introduced in the Senate last week.
The National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 extends security agencies’ powers to search and use surveillance devices in the new communication environment, introduces a new ‘multiple warrants’ regime, offers immunity to intelligence personnel who break all but the most serious laws, while increasing penalties for whistleblowing and criminalising the reporting of leaked intelligence-related information.
Australian Attorney-General George Brandis introduced the legislation on Thursday (July 17).
The crucial section affecting journalists and bloggers is straightforward:
35P Unauthorised disclosure of information
(1) A person commits an offence if:
(a) the person discloses information; and
(b) the information relates to a special intelligence operation.
Penalty: Imprisonment for 5 years.
It continues to set a 10 year jail term if the disclosure is deemed to “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation.” A selective list of exemptions makes no mention of material being published in the public interest.
The provision is clearly aimed at preventing Wikileaks or Snowden-style leaks of recent years and their broad publication in the world’s media and across social media, to the embarrassment of governments including Australia’s.
As I detailed in my recent Walkley Magazine article, ‘Terror on the books’ (May 29, 2014), Australian governments from both Labor and the conservative parties have contributed to the enactment of more than 50 pieces of legislation at national level (and many more at state level) since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, many of which have impacted free expression and reportage. Colleagues Dr Jacqui Ewart, Joshua Lessing and I detailed this trend in a recent article in the Journal of Media Law.
The Haneef case in 2007 showed how national security laws could be used to restrict media access to information in an anti-terrorism matter. In that case, the accused was ultimately acquitted after a leak to the media showed how little evidence there really was against him. If this new law was in place, journalists might face jail for reporting such an injustice.
The proposed law is so draconian that it has prompted a release from Paris-Based Reporters Without Borders.
Without a bill of rights or constitutional amendment to protect free expression or media freedom in this country, it is left to those who care about free speech to make their objections clear. Please write to the Federal Attorney-General at email@example.com opposing this legislation. Please also make submissions stating any concerns to parliamentary committees reviewing the legislation when it reaches the committee stage. Sadly, in Australia there will be no formal review of the free expression implications of the bill.
© Mark Pearson 2014
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.