Wedged between the recent passage of legislation expanding Australia’s spy agency’s powers and a date for a Senate inquiry into press freedom after the New Year, Attorney-General Christian Porter and the Morrison government announced on Wednesday a range of measures aimed at enhancing public interest journalism and the protection of whistle-blowers.
However, both the Greens and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) have criticised the government’s announcement, claiming it doesn’t go far enough to prevent the persecution of journalists and others acting in the public interest.
And those bodies collectively warn that such persecution can ultimately lead to prosecutions unless further revisions are taken.
“Under the reforms proposed by the Attorney-General today, journalists can still have their homes or workplaces raided without prior knowledge,” said Sarah Hanson-Young, holder of the communications portfolio for the Greens, in a reaction to Porter’s announcement.
“Journalists and their employers will still not have the right to appear before a judge and contest a search warrant before it is executed.
“Journalism remains a crime and journalists can still be jailed under these reforms,” added Hanson-Young.
Marcus Strom, the MEAA’s media federal president, called for greater action to counter any shortcomings that a Peter Dutton-sponsored piece of legislation passed in Parliament’s final sitting fortnight contained in the way of oversights and transparencies.
“The impetus for this review was the raids on consecutive days in 2019 of the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC offices in Sydney,” Strom said.
“Government agencies can still obtain warrants to investigate journalists in secret, and journalists and their sources can still be jailed for truth-telling.
“There is an urgent need for much broader reform to remove laws that criminalise journalism,” Strom added.
Dutton’s piece of legislation was aimed at increasing the powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to include investigations aimed at anyone from private citizens and residents, even as young as 14 years of age, to anyone acting in a public-interest capacity, such as journalists and whistle-blowers.
And while Hanson-Young and the Greens had already arranged and announced a Senate inquiry into media freedom in Australia to take place in February after Parliament reconvenes after its summer break, Porter defends his department’s announcements as being a step in the right direction.
“Transparency is a key foundation of a healthy democracy and these reforms support the right of journalists and whistle-blowers to hold governments at all levels to account by shining a light on issues that are genuinely in the public interest,” said Porter.
Specific to journalists and public-interest journalism, amendments to Dutton’s recently-passed legislation would include:
- only Supreme or Federal Court judges would have the ability to issue search warrants against journalists for disclosure offences
- warrants would only be issued against journalists for disclosure offences after consideration by a Public Interest Advocate
- greater justifications would have to be given in relation to warrants exercised against journalists, and
- the government would be required to consider additional defences for public interest journalism for secrecy offences
“Our reforms will ensure the [ASIO Amendment Bill] is clear and understandable and provides an effective legal framework that supports and protects public sector whistle-blowers, while balancing important national security considerations with regard to the unauthorised release of sensitive information,” said Porter.
- enshrining a positive protection for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Australian law
- with regard to broadening shield laws, Protection would have to be extended to all those involved in the newsgathering and publication process whose material or evidence may tend to reveal the identity of a source
- journalists and their employers should be informed when enforcement agencies seek access to their metadata and journalist information warrants should be contestable by the subject of the warrant and their employer
- and the public interest consideration required before issuing a journalist’s information warrant should be expanded to consider the potential harm that could be done by the issuance of the warrant and the public interest in a free press
“Journalists should not be charged for doing their jobs full stop. They should not have their homes raided. They should not be intimidated or threatened. They should not be attacked by the government for reporting what is in the public interest,” said Hanson-Young.
Hanson-Young also envisions areas of reporting that can be opened up without the government scrutiny which may theoretically be applied under the current legislation, should new press freedom laws become enacted.
“We have seen in recent months, vindication for those journalists whose homes and workplaces were raided over their reports on alleged war crimes and the government’s plans to spy on Australians. Public interest journalism is vital to our democracy,” she said.
“We need proper protections for journalists including a contested warrants process to be enshrined in a Media Freedom Act,” she added.
Meanwhile, Mike Burgess, ASIO’s director-general of security, feels that any reforms to the ASIO Amendment Bill – even at the reward of protecting public interest journalism, journalists, and whistle-blowers – need to be taken within the agenda of the nation’s greater interests.
“I acknowledge ASIO is granted extraordinary powers – but they are rightly subject to strict safeguards and oversight. Australians should be confident that ASIO acts in a targeted, proportionate, ethical way, and wherever possible, uses the least intrusive method available to collect security intelligence,” Burgess said in reaction to the bill’s passage last week.
“We do not just do what is legal, we do what is right,” Burgess added.
Also by William Olson:
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