The Human Rights Law Centre has welcomed the findings of a Senate inquiry into press freedom to better protect whistleblowers and public interest journalism in Australia.
The Senate inquiry investigated the impact of national security and surveillance laws on press freedom and whistleblowing and was initiated following the 2019 raids on ABC’s Sydney headquarters and the home of journalist Annika Smethurst.
Earlier this week, the final report was published and made 17 recommendations. These included proposed reforms to secrecy and espionage laws that potentially criminalise public interest journalism and a call for long-awaited improvements to federal whistleblower protections.
Following the Senate inquiry, the Human Rights Law Centre is calling on the Morrison government to immediately act on recommendations to better protect whistleblowers and public interest journalism in Australia.
“We have a right to know what our government does in our name. Protecting whistleblowers who speak up about wrongdoing and the journalists who write about it is vital to our democracy,” said HRLC senior lawyer Kieran Pender (pictured).
“This report, like several before it, confirms that we urgently need to rein in the secrecy and surveillance laws which are impeding public interest journalism and democratic accountability in Australia.
“Whistleblowers shouldn’t face prison for doing the right thing and journalists shouldn’t be raided for doing their job.
“As recommended by the Committee, the Government should urgently reform whistleblowing law, overhaul draconian secrecy law and legislate better protections for journalists.”
Further, the Senate report called on prosecutors to urgently reconsider whether the prosecution of David McBride should be continued. Mr McBride blew the whistle on the alleged actions of Australian special forces in Afghanistan – conduct characterised as potential war crimes by the Inspector-General.
“The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions should also review the prosecution of Afghan Files whistleblower David McBride, as well as the prosecutions of Bernard Collaery, Witness K and Richard Boyle. These prosecutions are not in the public interest and should be dropped,” said Mr Pender.
As reported earlier this week, the cases brought against Mr Collaery and Witness K relate to allegations that Australian spies bugged the cabinet office of Timor-Leste during oil and gas negotiations in the early 2000s.
Mr Collaery is charged with offences relating to the alleged disclosure of information to the Timor-Leste government and the Australian media, and his former client, an ex-intelligence officer known as Witness K, is set to plead guilty to a summary offence.
Mr Pender said at the time that with the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 sitting idle for five years, the government has been “sitting on reform” to federal whistleblowing law. Five years on, draft amendments are still yet to be shared publicly.
“Implementing these recommendations would go a long way towards a more open and transparent Australia. But we must go even further. Australia urgently needs a federal charter of rights to safeguard our rights and freedoms, including press freedom,” he said.