Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton is seeking added powers to grant to ASIO to strike at freedoms granted to journalists and citizens alike, activist group GetUp! alleged on Sunday.
In an e-mail sent to its subscribers with a link to a petition, GetUp! claimed that Dutton’s attempts to expand those range of powers could be fast-tracked with federal Parliament currently in its final fortnight of sitting for 2020, beyond initial discussions with Parliament’s bipartisan intelligence committee.
The organisation also alleges that Dutton – whose portfolio has grown markedly from the time he was a member of the cabinet of former Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull from 2013 and the initial creation of his Department of Home Affairs portfolio in 2017 – would use the impact of such proposed legislation as “far-reaching powers” to be used “against journalists, whistleblowers, and environmental and human rights groups” as a few examples.
With public interest journalism and press freedoms at threat due to the proposed legislation, GetUp!’s claims – the activist group’s second in as many months against Dutton’s legislative attempts in this matter – possess the backings of legal opinion.
Insofar as journalists, whistleblowers and the establishment, application and expansion of press freedom are concerned, the proposed legislation could “undermine the important role played by civil society organisations in holding government to account,” according to the legal pairing of Dominic Villa and Diana Tang, twin barristers from the Sydney-based legal firm of New Chambers.
Furthermore, the scrutiny of Villa and Tang over a bill which would essentially expand ASIO’s tasks and roles beyond matters relating to terrorism would possess chilling consequences to journalists for simply doing their jobs in the public interest, should they get called up on any matters deemed questionable to the intelligence community at-large.
“A journalist would then be obliged to provide information pursuant to the warrant, where the failure to do so would be a criminal offence punishable by five years imprisonment,” the barristers said last week ahead of a Senate Estimates hearing and prior to Parliament’s ongoing sitting session.
“Despite well-recognised professional and ethical obligations of a journalist to maintain anonymity and confidentiality of a source, if so questioned under a warrant, a journalist would be required to disclose the identity of a confidential source,” Villa and Tang added in their legal opinion.
Furthermore, the legislation that would allow Dutton to grant these expanded powers to ASIO would contain very little in the way of grey areas, if any at all.
And that in itself would have consequences on journalists’ efforts to obtain sensitive information from primary sources or even whistleblowers.
“There may therefore be a chilling effect on the willingness of people to speak to journalists about issues of political significance, including security matters and foreign relations,” said Villa and Tang.
As for the process, ASIO’s pathway would be streamlined to the point that all they would require the mere approval from the Attorney-General’s office without a warrant from a judge, in order to exercise its actions and intentions.
The Law Council of Australia also opposes the proposed legislation.
In addition to preferring to see a judge have the final say on approving such actions, or even intervening in emergency situations, they also recommend a three-day buffer interval in situations of appeal.
“If the judicial officer does not confirm the issuing decision, the warrant is cancelled, and the judicial officer may order the destruction of the intelligence, or may impose conditions on its retention,” its representative told the intelligence committee.
The Department of Home Affairs, speaking on behalf of ASIO, cites a claim that, according to its director-general Mike Burgess, “the current threat from espionage and foreign interference as greater now than at the height of the Cold War” and a justification for the proposed legislation that “these sophisticated activities pose a risk to key pillars of Australia’s democracy and attempt to undermine our sovereignty”.
While Dutton and his agencies under his Home Affairs portfolio have form in the way of making actions against journalists – namely, the ABC’s “Afghan Files” duo of Dan Oakes and Sam Clarke as well as former News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst – in which the possibilities of charges were later dropped, GetUp! through its managing director Paul Oosting aim to garner greater support on its petition to lobby the Morrison government against the proposed legislation.
“From prosecuting whistleblowers and journalists, to secret court cases, and threats to crack down on protesters – the Morrison government is slowly whittling away at our democracy,” the group states, as the petition has currently gathered approximately 113,000 signatures with 120,000 signatures as its target.
“If they get their way with these latest laws, Peter Dutton and his spy agency will be handed unchecked power, and journalists, activists, and civil society groups will all be in their reach.
“So with just two weeks of Parliament left for the year, we need to stop these laws in their tracks,” GetUp! added.
Also by William Olson:
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