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See @ConversationEDU for @journlaw’s five reasons the Australian #natsec laws damage media freedom

By MARK PEARSON

The Abbott government’s latest tranches of national security and counter-terrorism laws represent the greatest attack on the Fourth Estate function of journalism in the modern era. They are worse than the Gillard government’s failed attempts to regulate the press.

Unlike most other Western democracies, Australia has no constitutional instrument protecting free expression as a human right. Few politicians can resist the temptation to control the flow of information if the law permits.

Here are five reasons that this latest move is damaging the democratic cornerstone of press freedom:

  1. It is legislative over-reach
  2. It gags reportage of a key public issue
  3. It compromises the separation of powers
  4. It spells the end for the confidential source
  5. Exemptions effectively license old media over new media.

See The Conversation today for the full article.

[Thanks to media freedom interns Jasmine Lincoln and Satoshi Horiuchi for their research assistance.]

© 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.

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Journalists face jail for reporting intelligence operations – with no public interest defence

By MARK PEARSON

The Australian Government’s passage this week of the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 is highly likely to impact on Australia’s standing in international media freedom rankings like Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF’s) World Press Freedom Index.

Media Watch cites this journlaw post

ABC Media Watch cites this journlaw post in its 6 October 2014 episode

The legislation amended the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 (‘ASIO Act), and the Intelligence Services Act 2001 (bizarrely abbreviated as the ‘IS Act’).

The new law leaves journalists and bloggers liable to up to five years in jail for ‘unauthorised’ disclosure of information related to a special intelligence operation – and up to 10 years if the disclosure ‘endangers the health or safety’ of anyone or will ‘prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation’ (Section 35P of the ASIO Act).

The legislation seems aimed at whistleblowers like Edward Snowden or Wikileaks, but as Ben Grubb reported in smh.com.au, it casts its net so wide that it relies on the goodwill of the government of the day not to pursue ordinary journalists and commentators if they happen to stumble across such an operation and report upon it.

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.

Speaking to The Australian’s legal affairs editor Chris Merritt this week, I suggested an operation like that involving former Gold Coast doctor Mohamed Haneef in 2006 might have triggered such a consequence if it had been deemed a ‘special intelligence operation’.

That particular arrest was the result of an Australian Federal Police investigation, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility to see ASIO involved in future such operations.

It was only thorough investigative reporting based upon leaks that led to a Gold Walkley Award for journalist Hedley Thomas at The Australian that exposed the flaws in the prosecution case against Haneef, and led to his later release and exoneration.

While Thomas and other national security writers would not want to compromise an anti-terror operation, you could certainly see them pursuing rigorous reporting of such a matter if a serious injustice appeared to be done or public safety was being placed in jeopardy.

And that is the problem – there is no ‘public interest’ defence available under the laws that have just passed both houses of the Australian Parliament.

Further, there is nothing that would prevent prosecution of a journalist who inadvertently disclosed information about such an intelligence operation in the course of their normal reporting.

I was discussing this today with another Walkley Award winning editor of a regional newspaper who was concerned that an operation conducted in a regional centre would be such big news that it would be difficult not to cover it.

That might well meet the definition of such a disclosure, and the reporters dealing with it would likely not be as well briefed in national security laws as their national and metropolitan counterparts.

Either way, and as I explained to Chris Merritt in that interview this week, the law now presents journalists with a potential new conflict between their code of ethics and the law over which they might face jail.

Journalists have traditionally been willing to go to prison to protect their confidential sources – and in fact three Australian journalists have done time for just that over the past three decades.

Now we have this new situation where some journalists might be willing to defy this new law – and face up to 10 years in jail – if they see an overriding public interest in revealing the nature of such an operation.

If they choose to do so, sadly there will be no defence available to them.

This is just one of a series of detrimental developments for media freedom in Australia in recent months which I have documented previously – all of which are likely to see Australia’s ranking decline in the RSF index which is being compiled over the next two months.

The Australian measures are already on the international radar, as a recent World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) blog by media academic Julie Posetti demonstrated.

My frank view is that Australia is an ‘emerging Secret State’ – a topic I will be addressing at an upcoming conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Pacific Journalism Review in Auckland in November.

Of course I do not suggest Australia is at the far end of the spectrum like North Korea, China or Vietnam. We do not have the licensing of journalists or the jailing or torture of those opposing the government’s line.

However, when compared with other Western democracies we do not have the safeguards of free expression protections in a Bill of Rights or in a major constitutional amendment as in the US.

Sadly, this means new gags like this measure can be rushed through Parliament by a government seeking a tougher anti-terror image and an Opposition fearful of being seen to go soft on national security.

© 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.

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Media freedom concerns over federal demands for ABC interview tapes

By MARK PEARSON

[Research assistance kindly provided by media freedom intern Mardi Reason]

JUST as the Australian Government proposes tougher national security powers for its agencies and penalties for whistleblowing we have learned this week that the Australian Federal Police has asked the ABC for unedited current affairs interview footage in its pursuit of a former spy and a lawyer.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 7.57.38 PM

Senator Nick Xenophon’s questions of Attorney-General George Brandis about AFP investigation.

Attorney-General George Brandis confirmed in the Senate on Monday (see inset) that Australian Federal Police started an investigation into the sources of leaks of classified information after it was revealed Australia spied on East Timor during sensitive oil and gas treaty negotiations.

The targets of the investigation are reported to be lawyer Bernard Collaery (a former ACT Attorney-General now in London about to represent East Timor in The Hague) and a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) agent who was allegedly the whistleblower.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) raided Collaery’s Canberra office last December and seized documents.

Tom Allard reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday that the latest investigation had prompted requests from the AFP for the raw footage of Mr Collaery’s interviews with programs including 7.30, Lateline and Four Corners.

A report by Conor Duffy on 7.30 last December also featured actors’ voices reading an affidavit from the former ASIS agent which the Herald has speculated could be important evidence the AFP needs for its investigation into the identity of the whistleblower.

However, in the Hansard record of Senator Brandis’ comments on Monday (inset), the Attorney-General claims there are some inaccuracies in the Herald report. In particular, he claims it is inaccurate that he ordered the AFP investigation. Rather, it was ASIO-driven, he told the Senate.

As reported earlier at journlaw.com, the Australian government introduced the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 on July 14 which would extend security agencies’ powers to search and use surveillance devices in the new communication environment, introduce a new ‘multiple warrants’ regime, offer 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.

Importantly, it would introduce a new offence carrying a five year jail term for anyone disclosing information relating to special intelligence operations.

This latest episode demonstrates how easily journalists and media organisations can get caught up in such investigations. It threatens to expose them to contempt penalties if they refuse to co-operate and will inevitably make sources reluctant to talk to reporters covering the important round of national security, particularly as it coincides with a push for even greater surveillance powers for federal agencies.

Sources:

Allard, T. 2014, ‘Government wants East Timor spy charged’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/government-wants-east-timor-spy-charged-20140831-10aoad.html

Safi, M. 2014 , ‘Timor-Leste spy case: Brandis denies referring lawyer to police’, The Guardian, 1 September 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/01/timor-leste-spy-case-brandis-denies-referring-lawyer-to-police

Fernandes, C. 2014, ‘Our land is girt by oil-rich sea … that we steal from East Timor’, Crikey, 2 September 2014 http://www.crikey.com.au/2014/09/02/our-land-is-girt-by-oil-rich-sea-that-we-steal-from-east-timor/

Commonwealth of Australia, 2014, September 1 (14:32). Hansard. Parliamentary Debates – Senate. Questions Without Notice – East Timor. (Senators Xenophon and Brandis). http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/genpdf/chamber/hansards/49cdeae9-b762-449e-9e05-7239b8940f5f/0044/hansard_frag.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

© 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.

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Memo #RSF Paris: Australian media freedom at risk from anti-terror laws

By MARK PEARSON

[Research assistance from media freedom intern Jasmine Lincoln]

Memo to: Benjamin Ismail, Bureau Asie-Pacifique, Reporters sans frontiers (RSF – Reporters Without Borders), Paris.

From: Mark Pearson, RSF correspondent, Australia

RSFlogo-enI regret to advise that several events and policy proposals have impacted negatively on the state of media freedom in Australia.

They are highly likely to threaten Australia’s ranking on your forthcoming RSF World Press Freedom Index.

A raft of new laws and policies proposed by the conservative Abbott Government has placed its stamp on media law and free and open public commentary.

The initiatives follow in the steps of the prior Labor Government that had proposed a new media regulatory regime with potentially crippling obligations under the Privacy Act.

In the course of its first year in office the Abbott Government has:

– imposed a media blackout on vital information on the important human rights issue of the fate of asylum seekers;

– initiated major budget cuts on the publicly funded ABC;

– used anti-terror laws to win a ‘super injunction’ on court proceedings that might damage its international relations (see your earlier RSF release on this, which I cannot legally reproduce here for fear of a contempt charge);

– moved to stop not-for-profits advocating against government policy in their service agreements, meaning they lose funding if they criticise the government;

– slated the Office of the Information Commissioner for abolition, promising tardy FOI appeals;

– proposed the taxing of telcos to pay for its new surveillance measures, potentially a modern version of licensing the press;

– proposed ramped up surveillance powers of national security agencies and banning reporting of security operations (See Prime Minister’s August 5 release here);

– proposed increased jail terms for leaks about security matters (you issued a release on July 22 the impact for whistleblowers);

– mooted a new gag on ‘incitement to terrorism’;

– proposed new laws reversing the onus of proof about the purpose of their journey for anyone, including journalists, travelling to Syria or Iraq.

Major media groups have expressed their alarm at the national security proposals in a joint submission stating that the new surveillance powers and measures against whistleblowers would represent an affront to a free press.

Over the same period the judiciary has presided over the jailing of a journalist for breaching a suppression order, the conviction of a blogger for another breach, and several instances of journalists facing contempt charges over refusal to reveal their sources. There have also been numerous suppression orders issued, including this one over a Victorian gangland trial.

Other disturbing signs have been actions by police and departmental chiefs to intimidate journalists and media outlets.

  • The Australian Federal Police raided the Seven Network headquarters in Sydney in February, purportedly in search of evidence of chequebook journalism, triggering an official apology this week.
  • Defence Chief General David Hurley wrote to newly elected Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie in March, warning her not to use the media to criticise the military.
  • Freelance journalist Asher Wolf received a threatening letter from the secretary for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) Martin Bowles following her co-written article for the Guardian Australia on February  19, 2014 titled ‘Immigration Department data lapse reveals asylum seekers’ personal details.’ The public service mandarin’s letter implied Wolf had obtained the material on which the article was based by ‘dishonest or unfair means’ and demanded Wolf agree not to publish the contents and ‘return all hard and soft copies of the information’ including any her storage devices. See the letter here: WolfDIBP to The Guardian – A Wolf. The Sydney Morning Herald later reported that the DIBP was hiring private contractors to trawl social media and order pro-asylum seeker activists to remove their protesting posts.

I am sure you will agree that these developments are not what we would expect to be unfolding in a Western democracy like Australia where media freedom has previously been at a level respected by the international community.

Kind regards,

Mark Pearson (@journlaw)

—–

Sources for further detail on the national security reforms:

(6 August, 2014). Inquiry into the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 Submission. Retrieved from: file:///C:/Users/jasmine/Downloads/17.%20Joint%20media%20organisations%20(1).pdf.

Criminal Code Act 1995 (Qld) s. 5.4 (Austl.).

Grubb, B. (19 August, 2014). Anti-leak spy laws will only target ‘reckless’ journalists: Attorney-General’s office. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/antileak-spy-laws-will-only-target-reckless-journalists-attorneygenerals-office-20140818-1059c7.html.

Grubb, B. (30 July, 2014). Edward Snowden’s lawyer blasts Australian law that would jail journalists reporting on spy leaks. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/consumer-security/edward-snowdens-lawyer-blasts-australian-law-that-would-jail-journalists-reporting-on-spy-leaks-20140730-zyn95.html.

Hopewell, L. (17 July, 2014). New Aussie Security Laws Would Jail Journalists for Reporting on Snowden Style-Leaks. Retrieved from: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/07/new-aussie-security-laws-would-jail-journalists-for-reporting-on-snowden-style-leaks/.

Murphy, K. (17 August, 2014). David Leyonhjelm believes security changes restrict ordinary Australians. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/17/david-leyonhjelm-security-changes-restrict-australians.

Parliament of Australia (15 August, 2014). Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, 15/08/2014, National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014. Retrieved from: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;adv=yes;db=COMMITTEES;id=committees%2Fcommjnt%2F2066f963-ee87-4000-9816-ebc418b47eb4%2F0002;orderBy=priority,doc_date-rev;query=Dataset%3AcomJoint;rec=0;resCount=Default.

The Greens (1 August, 2014). Brandis presumption of terror guilt could trap journalists, aid workers. Retrieved from: http://greens.org.au/node/5617.

 

© 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.

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New Australian Press Council standards start August 1

Guest report from JASMINE LINCOLN, Griffith University media freedom intern

THE Australian Press Council (APC) has released its new Statement of General Principles as part of its Standards Project where it is reviewing its Standards of Practice and creating new ones.

It applies to all print and online news material from August 1, 2014.

Mark Pearson ( ) recently had the chance to interview Australian Press Council chair Professor Julian Disney on the role and direction of the Council.

In this interview he discussed the recent reforms to the Council, the move to improve its editorial standards, and the future for media ‘self-regulation’ as broadcast, print, online and social media formats continue to converge.

(12 mins, recorded 17 March 2014). Apologies for some audio sync issues!

The Council states on its site:

The revised Statement of General Principles does not seek to change substantially the general approach which has been taken previously by the Council. The main purposes are to ensure that the Principles accurately reflect that approach, are as clear as possible and are succinct.

Amongst other things, the new Statement of General Principles clarifies

• the principle that reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading applies to material of that kind in all types of article;

• the principle of reasonable fairness and balance applies to presentation of facts (including presentation of other people’s opinions) but not to writers’ expressions of their own opinion.

The Principles focus on four sets of key values:

• accuracy and clarity;

• fairness and balance;

• privacy and avoidance of harm;

• integrity and transparency.

The first phase of the Council’s ongoing changes has involved a review of the General Principles and the development of Specific Standards.

The next phase of the project includes a number of developments, including reviews of Privacy Principles and new Specific Standards on technological media outlets.

Also amongst these developments is a “systemic monitoring of compliance” (Australian Press Council, 2014) regarding the practice of the new standards.

This will directly affect the work of journalists because they will have their articles examined by the APC.

According to Press Council chair Professor Julian Disney, there are two main reasons for this Standards Project: so that the Standards of Practice are clearer and so they appropriately reflect the modern media context.

As a result of this project, the APC hopes that the new standards “will deal more effectively” with numerous complaints that they receive each year.

Sources:

Australian Press Council (2014). The Standards Project. Retrieved from: http://www.presscouncil.org.au/the-standards-project/

Robin, M (July 2014). Higher standards for opinion writing as Press Council refocuses for digital age. Retrieved from: http://www.crikey.com.au/2014/07/22/higher-standards-for-opinion-writing-as-press-council-refocuses-for-digital-age/

© Jasmine Lincoln 2014

Disclaimer: While this blog is 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.

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