Tag Archives: national security

Five media law essentials for journalists, publishers and students #MLGriff #auspol #medialaw #auslaw

By MARK PEARSON

Much has happened in the field of media and social media law, even since the sixth edition of our Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (Pearson & Polden) was published in 2019.

As media law students start their academic year at Australian institutions, this calls for a quick update of the five most important risks facing journalists in the digital era.

  1. Defamation: Reforms to Australian defamation laws appear imminent, but the basic principles will remain the same. Pause before publishing anything criticising or ridiculing anyone and consider your language, evidence base, intended meaning, motivation and working knowledge of the defences available to you. If in doubt, seek legal advice. If you can’t afford that advice, then modify the material or leave it out – unless you have considerable defamation insurance. Society needs robust journalism, but remember it can also need deep pockets to defend it. The 2019 case of Voller v. Nationwide News underscores the decision in Allergy Pathway almost a decade ago: publishers may be responsible for the comments of others on their social media sites, particularly when posting articles on inflammatory topics or people. Ashurst law firm has produced a useful flow-chart to explain the steps a publisher should take to minimise the risks of liability for comments by third parties on their social media sites.
  2. High profile trials: Regardless of the fate of the 30 journalists and news organisations still facing contempt action over their reporting of last year’s trial of Cardinal George Pell, the episode reinforces the dangers facing those reporting and commenting upon major court matters. As we show in our crime reporting time zones flowchart in our text, a criminal case involves an interplay of risks including defamation, contempt and other restrictions. Courts and prosecutors take suppression orders seriously, so it is wise to pause to reflect and to take legal advice when navigating this territory.
  3. National security risks: Many of the 70-plus anti-terror laws passed in Australia since 2001 impact on journalists, with jail terms a real risk for those reporting on special intelligence operations, ASIO, suppressed trials, and any matter using insider government sources, along with a host of other risks as identified by Australia’s Right To Know’s submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in 2019. The laws present a minefield for journalists covering national security, defence, immigration and related topics. It is a specialist field requiring a close familiarity with the numerous laws.
  4. Breach of confidence: Journalists are reluctant to reveal their own confidential sources, but they are keen to tell the secrets of others – particularly if matters of public interest are being covered up. Actions for breach of confidence allow individuals and corporations to seek injunctions to prevent their dirty linen being aired. Further, the Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended a new action of serious invasion of privacy and the future development of the action for breach of confidence with compensation for emotional distress. The Parliament has not yet embraced the proposal but judge-made law on privacy and confidentiality remains a possibility.
  5. Compromising sources: The journalist-source relationship is one where the journalist’s ethical obligation to preserve confidentiality is threatened by a number of laws. Most Australian jurisdictions now have shield laws giving judges a discretion to excuse a journalist from revealing a source after weighing up various public interest factors. This is far from a watertight protection and journalists face potential jail terms for ‘disobedience contempt’ for refusing a court order to reveal a source or hand over materials. Further, as two ABC journalists and News Corporation’s Annika Smethurst discovered last year, journalists can also face criminal charges for just handling or publishing confidential or classified materials given to them by whistleblowers, even if the matter relates to an important matter of public interest. The validity of the warrants to raid them over ‘dishonestly receiving stolen property’ (Commonwealth documents) was upheld by a Federal Court earlier this year, despite a range of arguments including shield laws and the constitutional implied freedom to communicate on political matters. Such action, combined with the far-reaching powers of authorities to access communications metadata and the proliferation of public CCTV footage presents huge challenges to journalists trying to keep their whistleblower sources secret. It is one thing to promise confidentiality to a source, but quite another to be able to honour that promise given modern surveillance technologies and the legal reach of agencies.

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.

© Mark Pearson 2020 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

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Australian metadata laws put confidential interviews at risk, with no protections for research

By MARK PEARSON

Interviews from a range of sensitive research topics may be at risk. These include immigration, crime and corruption.
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EACH year, academics and students make countless applications for research ethics approval, based on the promise of confidentiality to their interview subjects. Interviewees sometimes offer academic researchers information that might be self-incriminating or might jeopardise the rights and liberties of others they’re discussing.

But Australia’s metadata retention laws can lead to the identification and even incrimination of the very people whose identities academic researchers have promised to keep secret for their work.

Imagine, for instance, a criminologist conducting a project examining white collar crime in banking and financial services. The academic’s confidential interviews with former company directors and executives might elicit specific and revealing answers. It could lead to potential redundancy or even jail time, depending on their vulnerability and culpability.

Under the metadata laws, government agencies make hundreds of thousands of requests to Australian telcos each year for their customers’ phone and internet communications metadata.

For the criminologist, this means relevant agencies can ask telcos to access his or her metadata in the form of call records and computer IP addresses. This means they can identify whether a person of interest has been in communication with the researcher and is the possible source of incriminating material. Other investigations and legal steps might then follow.

Interviews about a range of sensitive research topics may be at risk. These include immigration, crime and corruption, national security, policing, politics, international relations and policy.

The impact of metadata laws on journalists and their sources have been well documented. But we can only wonder how many people will agree to participate in academic research if they are made fully aware of the real potential of being identified by investigators.

Interested?

READ my full article in The Conversation.

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.

© Mark Pearson 2019 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

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Submission to inquiry shows journalism educators and students lack metadata source protection

By MARK PEARSON

Australian journalists have a narrow and inadequate protection under national security laws from government agencies accessing their metadata to discover the identity of their confidential sources.

I helped the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia (JERAA) prepare a parliamentary committee submission that explains journalism educators and journalism students do not even qualify for that low level of protection, leaving their confidential sources open to revelation.

Our submission now sits with several others on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security site here.

We have asked that legislators focus on the public interest journalism involved when awarding such defences and protections rather than focussing simply on whether someone is a ‘journalist‘ – an occupation and term difficult to define in the modern era – and used as the default for the rare privileges given.

We have proposed that

existing and proposed protections for ‘journalists and media organisations’ be extended to apply to the research and outputs of journalism educators and their students when they are engaged in ‘public interest journalism’, whether or not they are paid to work as journalists and whether or not their work is published by a ‘media organisation’ in its traditional sense.

We have also asked that the Commonwealth lead a reform initiative to unify all state, territory an Commonwealth media laws across a range of publication restrictions to do away with anachronistic inconsistencies and introduce a public interest journalism defence or exemption so that courts are prompted to balance the various interests at stake before issuing a warrant against a journalist or taking criminal action.

The Committee is now entering the phase of public hearings. See their site here.

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.

© Mark Pearson 2019 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

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Our surveillance chapter in the new book ‘In The Name of Security’

By MARK PEARSON

Friend and colleague Joseph Fernandez (Curtin University) and I teamed up to write a chapter on surveillance and the media for a new book published by Anthem Press.

Ours is one of eleven chapters in the book In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism (Anthem, 2018), edited by our journalism education colleagues Johan Lidberg (Monash University) and Denis Muller (University of Melbourne).

For full details and ordering information, please go to the Anthem Press site here.

The book description and our chapter abstract are as follows:

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 saw the start of the so-called war on terror. The aim of ‘In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism’is to assess the impact of surveillance and other security measures on in-depth public interest journalism. How has the global fear-driven security paradigm sparked by 11 September affected journalism? Moves by governments to expand the powers of intelligence and security organizations and legislate for the retention of personal data for several years have the potential to stall investigative journalism. Such journalism, with its focus on accountability and scrutiny of powerful interests in society, is a pillar of democracy.

Investigative journalism informs society by providing information that enables citizens to have input into democratic processes. But will whistleblowers acting in public interest in future contact reporters if they risk being exposed by state and corporate surveillance? Will journalists provide fearless coverage of security issues when they risk jail for reporting them?

At the core of ‘In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism’ sits what the authors have labeled the ‘trust us dilemma’. Governments justify passing, at times, oppressive and far-reaching anti-terror laws to keep citizens safe from terror. By doing so governments are asking the public to trust their good intentions and the integrity of the security agencies. But how can the public decide to trust the government and its agencies if it does not have access to information on which to base its decision?

‘In the Name of Security – Secrecy, Surveillance and Journalism’ takes an internationally comparative approach using case studies from the powerful intelligence-sharing group known as the Five Eyes consisting of the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Chapters assessing a selection of EU countries and some of the BRICS countries provide additional and important points of comparison to the English-speaking countries that make up the Five Eyes.

The core questions in the book are investigated and assessed in the disciplines of journalism studies, law and international relations. The topics covered include an overview and assessment of the latest technological developments allowing the mass surveillance of large populations including the use of drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

Chapter 3. Surveillance and National Security ‘Hyper-Legislation’ – Calibrating Restraints on Rights with a Freedom of Expression Threshold, Mark Pearson and Joseph M Fernandez:

The post-11 September 2001, era has unleashed a plethora of laws invoking national security and antiterrorism justifications that have severely compromised a range of human rights and civil liberties, including freedoms associated with expression and information access. Roach has described such laws as ‘hyper-legislation’ (2011, 310). Such legislation has inflicted often-unjustified constraints upon journalists and journalism. The overly broad antiterrorism laws potentially ensnare reporters covering security matters and have inflicted repeated blows on investigative journalism in recent times (Weisbrot 2016). Insufficient attention, however, is paid to the potential for these constraints to be informed and moderated by the constitutional and human rights frameworks in which such laws are enacted. There has been inadequate resolve to protect the public interest by ensuring that journalists and journalism are able to properly perform their professional duties and obligations. This chapter uses archival research, analysis of statutes and case law to examine how freedom of expression constitutional and human rights provisions in the Five Eyes democracies have, in reality, offered minimal protection to journalists and their sources – particularly in Australia, where a constitutional protection for freedom of expression is lacking. The absence of strong protections or the rampant undermining of existing protections, in the face of what Agamben (2005, 1) describes as an ongoing ‘state of exception’ in the post–9/11 war on terror, presents the need for new mechanisms to provide journalists and their confidential sources adequate protection to enable them to fulfil their professional obligations.

The authors argue that the long-held importance of freedom of expression in democracies moots for workable and explicit public interest defences to allow for the reporting of national security matters without endangering journalists or the sanctity of their obligations to confidential sources. The chapter undertakes a case study of Australia which, unlike the other Five Eyes intelligence alliance members – New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States – has no explicit constitutional or human rights framework to compel the courts or the Parliament to recognize the adverse implications of legislation upon free expression or a free media. The Australian courts and the Parliament have, however, acknowledged free expression rights, drawing upon free expression jurisprudence through the common law; an implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government; and the protocols for a non-binding review of the implications of proposed legislation upon human rights under the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 (Cth). This chapter considers these processes against the backdrop of the First Amendment obligations in the US Constitution, the UK’s free expression protection under Article 10 of its Human Rights Act 1998, guarantees on free expression, free media and free expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the free expression protection in New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act 1990. The authors argue that, while each of these jurisdictions has national security laws that impact upon the media, each enshrines stringent checks upon the impacts of proposed legislation on free expression. The ongoing onslaught against freedom of expression under the banner of the continued state of exception, however, shows that the free expression protections offered by such rights instruments provide minimal protection to journalists and their confidential sources.

The chapter also reviews the use of specific devices to deny journalists and their work appropriate protections in fulfilling their professional duties and responsibilities, and weighs their efficacy in a national security and counterterrorism context. It identifies relevant terminology from case law and legislative instruments including defamation law, consumer law and privacy and shield laws, and assesses their potential value as exemptions or devices to better protect journalists in a national security context. In doing so, it draws upon some examples and cases from those jurisdictions.

Finally, the chapter reviews the extent of journalist and source protections in recent Australian national security laws and draws upon survey research to indicate their impact upon journalists. It recommends a key aspirational threshold that should underpin an objective public interest test to apply to journalism in a counterterrorism legislative context so as to better safeguard free expression, transparency in governance and protection for journalists’ confidential sources.

 

© Mark Pearson 2018

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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Final global report on source protection by @julieposetti released by UNESCO

By MARK PEARSON

The final report of the three year global project by Fairfax Media and University of Wollongong colleague Julie Posetti (@julieposetti) comparing international approaches to protecting sources has been released by UNESCO.

As I foreshadowed earlier, the impressive study tracks, assesses and compares protective legal frameworks like shield laws over the 2007-2015 period, and recommends new measures for protection of journalists and their sources.

The report acknowledges the enormous benefits to journalism harnessed from the Internet and Web 2.0 communications, but homes in on the challenges of  the privacy and safety of journalistic sources. Mass surveillance, data retention and expanded national security laws all stand to erode the integrity of the journalist-whistleblower relationship.

The publication is available here.

The Posetti study draws on surveys and long form interviews involving nearly 200 international experts from the fields of law, journalism, digital communications and civil society organisations.

Academics from Australia (Posetti and UoW colleague Marcus O’Donnell), Brazil and China contributed, along with 11 research assistants from a range of countries.

I was honored to serve on the eight-member international advisory panel.

The report’s key recommendations for nations were:

  • Legislate for source protection;
  • Review  national laws on surveillance, anti-terrorism, data retention, and access to telecommunications records;
  • Co-operate with journalists’ and media freedom organisations to produce guidelines for prosecutors and police officers, and training materials for judges on the right of journalists not to disclose their sources;
  • Develop guidelines for public authorities and private service providers concerning the protection of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources in the context of the interception; or disclosure of computer data and traffic data of computer networks; and
  • Apply source protection regimes and defined exceptions in a gender-sensitive way.

Its main recommendations for journalists were:

  • Engage with digital issues impacting on source confidentiality protection, and actively campaign for laws and rules that provide adequate protection;
  • Explain to the public what is at stake in the protection of source confidentiality, especially in the digital age;
  • Ensure that sources are aware of the digital era threats to confidentiality;
  • Consider altering practices – including ‘going back to analogue methods’ when required (recognising this may not always be possible due to international or gender dynamics) – in order to offer a degree of protection to their confidential sources;
  • Help audiences become more secure in their own communications, for example explaining how encryption works, and why it is important not to have communications security compromised;
  • Consider providing technical advice and training to sources to ensure secure communications, with the assistance of NGOs and representative organisations;
  • In the case of media leaders, ensure that they also respect their journalists’ ethical commitment (and in some cases legal obligation) to source confidentiality; and
  • In the case of media owners, ensure that their journalists, and freelancers who contribute investigative reports, have access to the appropriate tools and training needed to ensure that they are able to offer the most secure channels of digital communication possible to their sources.

Related:

© Mark Pearson 2017

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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Stay Out Of Jail 101: Phone a spy before breaking a national security scoop

By MARK PEARSON

You have information that police and intelligence agencies are about to launch Australia’s biggest counter-terror operation. Or perhaps they already have.

ASIO headquarters, Canberra. Photo: Maps

ASIO headquarters, Canberra. Photo: Maps

The story could be the biggest scoop of your journalistic career.

Your news instinct might be to rush to publication or broadcast without giving government agencies the chance to shut your story down and without risking the news being leaked to your competitors.

But if your story meets the definition of a “special intelligence operation” under the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Act 1979 then you could face up to five years in jail for ‘unauthorised’ disclosure of information, 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’.

Amendments partially exempting ‘outsiders’ (journalists) were proposed in 2016, but grave concerns remained over the impacts on journalists for ‘reckless’ disclosure that might endanger safety and jeopardise an operation and the implications for their sources.

So what might be “reckless” disclosure?

For that, we look to Section 5.4 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which reads:

5.4   Recklessness

(2)  A person is reckless with respect to a result if:

(a)  he or she is aware of a substantial risk that the result will occur; and

(b)  having regard to the circumstances known to him or her, it is unjustifiable to take the risk.

When it comes to reckless disclosure, the Australian Law Reform Commission has stated:

“If the offence was framed to cover reckless disclosure, the prosecution would be required to prove that the accused was aware of a substantial risk that disclosure would occur as the result of the accused’s conduct and, having regard to the circumstances known to him or her, it was unjustifiable to take the risk.”

So, whether you view it under the existing Section 35P, or under the proposed reforms the Turnbull Government has agreed to enact, there is a strong argument that the only way to ensure you will not be charged with reckless disclosure is to first phone ASIO.

And that’s exactly the advice I was given when I phoned the ASIO media section and asked an (obviously) anonymous media liaison officer about the spy agency’s policy in dealing with journalists’ queries about whether the breaking news event they were trying to cover was in fact a “special intelligence operation”.

He said ASIO tried to strike a balance between what was appropriate to report and what was inappropriate.

He explained that soon after s35P had been passed in 2014 there had been a number of inquiries from journalists and that his office was not sure whether they were legitimate concerns about whether operations were SIOs or whether it was just “journalists being smart about the new laws”.

He said ASIO’s normal policy was to decline to comment when a media inquiry related to an individual or an operational matter, and that blanket ban made it hard to confirm or deny whether a particular operation was an SIO.

I later sent these specific questions to the officer at media@asio.gov.au:

  1. What steps should journalists take to ascertain whether their story (e.g., terror arrest, investigation, etc) relates to an SIO (special intelligence operation)?
  2. How do you respond to journalists’ inquiries about SIOs when ASIO’s normal practice is not to comment on matters related to individuals or operations?
  3. How many journalists’ inquiries as to whether an operation is an SIO have you had since the legislation was enacted?
  4. How many such inquiries have you had this year?
  5. What steps do you take to prevent/warn journalists about reporting the details of an SIO?
  6. What steps do you take to prevent/warn journalists about revealing the ID of an ASIO officer?
  7. How many instances of either (journalists giving SIO details or naming an officer) have you dealt with, and how have you handled them?

In a reply email, he referred me to ASIO’s responses to questions posed by the acting Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Roger Gyles QC when he was conducting his inquiry into the legislation, publicly released in February 2016.

That submission confirmed the approach the media officer had outlined, stating:

“Media inquiries received by ASIO are managed in accordance with standard operating procedures. To perform its statutory functions, ASIO must employ a conservative approach to media engagement with respect to operational matters. ASIO does not confirm details relating to individuals, investigations or operations as a matter of course. This includes inquiries in relation to special intelligence operations or other operationally sensitive information.

If journalists contact ASIO Media regarding an operational matter they intend to report on, ASIO advises the relevant line-area within the Organisation before responding to the journalist. When ASIO has concerns about the sensitivities around the subject being reported on, ASIO does not provide a public comment, but may decide to speak with the journalist on a confidential basis to provide context on that sensitivity. In this instance, the journalist may be contacted by the Director-General or a Deputy Director-General to explain how Australia’s national security would be prejudiced if the subject was reported on publicly.

All media inquiries, and responses, are logged and retained for accountability and future reference.”

It continued:

“In practice, if a journalist approached ASIO for comment on information they believed to be operationally sensitive, and which ASIO knew to be related to a special intelligence operation, ASIO would consider speaking with the journalist on a confidential basis to explain the sensitivities of the information. A number of considerations would go to determining whether to inform the journalist of the existence of a special intelligence operation, including whether a person might be harmed should the existence of a special intelligence operation be revealed. If, after receiving a confidential briefing by ASIO, the journalist still intended to publish the information, ASIO would advise the journalist that to do so may breach 35P. It would then be for the journalist to decide whether or not to proceed with publishing the information.”

So there you have it, the national spy agency recommends the Ghostbusters approach to journalists wanting to avoid a decade in jail for reckless disclosure of a special intelligence agency: “Who you gonna call? ASIO.”

And we might never know how many journalists have already been tapped on the shoulder and ‘advised’ not to publish.

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

© Mark Pearson 2016

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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The main national security laws affecting journalists and sources

By MARK PEARSON

[with research assistance from Virginia Leighton-Jackson]

Among more than 50 national security laws and amendments passed in Australia since 9/11, these four stand out as presenting the greatest threat to journalists …

ASIOActScreenshot

  1. ASIO Act 1979

Section 25A focuses on ASIO powers and access to computer networks, with one warrant now covering an entire computer network using third party computers to access target systems.

Section 34 gives ASIO powers to seek ‘questioning’ warrants and ‘questioning and detention’ warrants (detention for up to seven days) with five years’ jail possible for any revelation of the existence of the warrant itself or of any operation related to the warrant for up to two years after the warrant has expired. There are no public interest or media exemptions to the requirement, although disclosures of operational information by anyone other than the subject of a warrant or their lawyer requires the discloser to have shown ‘recklessness’ (s. 34ZS (3)).

Section 35P provides for 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’. Amendments partially exempting ‘outsiders’ (journalists) were proposed in 2016, but grave concerns remained over the impacts on journalists for ‘reckless’ disclosure that might endanger safety and jeopardise an operation and the implications for their sources.

Section 92 provides for 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone who identifies an ASIO officer or affiliate (or anyone connected with them) other than any who have been identified in Parliament (such as the director-general). Former ASIO employees and affiliates can be identified if they have consented in writing or have generally made that fact be known.

  1. Crimes Act 1914 (Cth)

Section 3ZQT makes it an offence to disclose the fact that someone has been given notice by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to produce documents related to a serious terrorism offence. Journalists could face up to two years in prison for doing so.

  1. Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979

After amendments in 2015, the Act requires telecommunications providers to retain customers’ phone and computer metadata for two years so they can be accessed by criminal law enforcement agencies (State and Commonwealth) on the issue of a warrant. Information required to be stored includes: subscriber/ account information, the source and destination of a communication, the date, time and duration of a communication or connection to a service. A ‘journalist information warrant’ scheme was designed to prohibit the disclosure of journalists’ confidential sources without special precautions. These require approval of the Minister, who may act on the advice of a ‘public interest advocate’, though the processes are secret and disclosure of the details of any warrant for telecommunications data can incur imprisonment for two years.

  1. National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004 (Cth) (‘NSI’)

National security has long been cited as one of the exceptions to the principle of open justice, but new laws give judges and magistrates more reason to close a court in a terrorism trial. The NSI Act allows for evidence to be suppressed in court hearings if it contains disclosures prejudicial to national security. Part 3 of the Act allows prosecutors and courts to use national security information in criminal proceedings while preventing the broader disclosure of such information, sometimes even to the defendant. Section 29 gives courts the power to decide whether to close the court for such matters.

Other laws to consider when covering a national security story:

Discrimination and vilification laws

Laws apply at state, territory and Commonwealth levels prohibiting racial and religious discrimination and the vilification of people because of their race, religion, or other factors. They vary in their scope and application, with debate over whether the law against offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin in Section 18C the Racial Discrimination Act (Clth) would apply to discriminatory media coverage of Muslims. All media codes of practice and ethical codes counsel against discriminatory or vilifying coverage. Social media comment moderation presents special challenges.

Defamation

If you are about to publish something damaging to someone’s reputation, ensure you work carefully within one of the main defences – truth (evidence to prove both the facts and their defamatory meaning), honest opinion / fair comment (based on true provable facts on a matter of legitimate public interest), or fair report (a fair and accurate report of a court case, parliament or another protected public occasion or document).

Contempt of court

The sub judice period (limiting prejudicial coverage about a suspect) starts from the moment someone has been arrested or charged. From that instant you should take legal advice before publishing anything other than what has been stated in open court, with special care to avoid any material giving an assumption of guilt (or even innocence), visual identification of the accused if their identification might be at issue, witness accounts, character background, confessions or prior charges or convictions. You can also face contempt charges over refusing to reveal a source or provide your data or notes when ordered to do so, thus techniques for source protection are paramount.

Suppression orders

Courts have special powers to issue suppression orders in national security cases. These might prohibit identification of certain people, restrict coverage of certain parts of a hearing, or even ban coverage of the total proceedings. Reporters and bloggers have been fined and jailed for breaching such suppression orders.

Sources:

Australian Human Rights Commission 2008, A Human Rights Guide to Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Laws, AHRC, Sydney, <www.humanrights.gov.au/human-rights-guide-australias-counter-terrorism-laws>.

Evershed, N., Safi, M., 19.10.2015, “All of Australia’s National Security Changes since 9/11 in a Timeline”, The Guardian Australia, available: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2015/oct/19/all-of-australias-national-security-changes-since-911-in-a-timeline

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

© Mark Pearson 2016

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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