New laws put Australia's press freedom at risk

By Melissa Coade|08 May 2018
Australia's press freedom, mobile phone, man in suit

According to the Human Rights Law Centre, federal national security laws must be “seriously reworked” to properly protect journalists, their sources and a robust Australian democracy.

Legal advocacy director from the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), Dr Aruna Sathanapally, has argued that a free press should not be something that those in power merely tolerated. A free press was a vital mechanism of accountability, she suggested, and a robust democracy depended on it.

“Journalists must be free to report mistakes, wrongdoing and cover-ups in government and in the private sector,” Dr Sathanapally said.

The Sydney barrister’s comments were made in response to recent Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) report, which surveyed the laws affecting the ability of journalists to obtain information and publish stories in the public interest.

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Dr Sathanapally noted that the report illustrated how the commitment to a free press in Australia had weakened, in particular with the successive enactment of laws that were justified with national security reasons. She added that the report painted a picture of “national security overreach”, with a range of legal developments leading to the prospect of steep criminal penalties for journalists and their sources.

“Identifying the source behind a story has become much easier for law enforcement agencies, without adequate safeguards for public interest disclosures,” Dr Sathanapally said.

“In these circumstances, you would need to be very brave to approach a journalist with information about wrongdoing within the government.”

The MEAA Press Freedom report identified the legal risks that journalists faced at each step in their reporting. The survey focused on laws governing whistle-blower protections; the threat of exposing communications between journalists and a source; and the threat of imprisonment for journalists who published information received from a whistle-blower.

Dr Sathanapally said that a number of proposed security laws, either before the parliament or foreshadowed by the Australian Government, were likely to have an impact on press freedom.

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These included secrecy laws that could see journalists locked up for a maximum of 20 years for publishing government information.

“While the Attorney-General has proposed amendments [to the secrecy laws], which would tighten protections for journalists, people who expose government misconduct are still at risk of imprisonment,” the HRLC said.

The report also flagged concerns about broad espionage laws with no defence for journalists or public interest disclosures, and with life imprisonment penalties for sharing certain information.

Encryption laws, foreshadowed by the Australian government, also attracted negative attention in the MEAA report, with the suggestion that they would have the potential of being misused — either to identify a whistle-blower or pursue a journalist for a story that the government may not like.

The MEAA report went on to criticise metadata retention laws, which allowed particular agencies access to the telecommunications records of Australians, including those of people they had spoken on the phone with, and information tracking where they had been.

“Identifying the source behind a story has become much easier for law enforcement agencies, without adequate safeguards for public interest disclosures,” Dr Sathanapally said.

“In these circumstances, you would need to be very brave to approach a journalist with information about wrongdoing within the government.”

Dr Sathanapally called for the government to show respect for the free press and to engage in meaningful consultation when it intended to introduce laws that would have such a fundamental impact on how journalists operated.

Citing the announcement of the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017, which was introduced on 7 December 2017, Dr Sathanapally observed that submissions on the proposed laws were then due to the relevant parliamentary committee just over six weeks later, on 22 January 2018.

“Rapid-fire legislating doesn’t work when we need to balance important national security interests and the fabric of our democracy,” Dr Sathanapally said.

“We urge the government and the parliament to tread carefully when making laws that affect our fundamental democratic freedoms and our ability to keep those in power honest and accountable.

“The Government needs to take the time and care to get secrecy and surveillance laws right. The laws before parliament at the moment need to be seriously reworked.”

New laws put Australia's press freedom at risk
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