Turnbull’s Espionage Bill could threaten the principles of journalism

Image source: Press Freedom

By Giorgina McKay | @ggmckay11

New espionage and foreign interference laws could see journalists facing 25 years to life imprisonment.

The Federal Government, with support from the Labor Party, implemented amendments to the Criminal Code Act 1995 last month that could potentially harm the principles of journalism.

The Espionage Bill would apply penalties to those receiving, possessing, communicating or recording information that could cause harm to Australia’s reputation on political or economic matters, including breaches of international law.

This extends not only to journalists, but editorial, production, office support staff and media outlets’ legal advisers who come into contact with this information.

Receipt of unsolicited information would also put a person in automatic breach.

This could include information and opinions about food security, energy security, climate security, economic conditions, migration and refugee policies as they may affect Australia’s political, military or economic relations with another country.

This means journalists who investigate and publish reports regarding serious breaches of a bilateral trade agreement, breaches of international humanitarian law during a war, spying activities on other countries, or serious breaches of human rights law domestically could be charged under these new laws.

The Bill would also require journalists to identify sources, and explain how they came to possess, deal with and hold such information; a major disposition against the journalism code of ethics.

Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus told Sky News “We’ve had secrecy laws that prohibit journalists from revealing secret government information in place for a century.”

Mr Dreyfus said prosecutions of journalists were very rare because [the] prosecuting authorities think hard before they prosecute.

The defence for journalists against the noncompliance of these laws is limited.

Journalists may argue under amendments found in the Public Interest Disclosure Act, however the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) found the defence of news reporting was narrow and subjective, particularly in regards to its definitions of ‘public interest’, and ‘fair and accurate reporting’.

Unsurprisingly, the government has received enormous backlash from journalists, officials and citizens alike who have labelled the new laws as ‘draconian’.

Amnesty International’s Australian External Affairs Director Claire O’Rourke said in its current form, the bill could wreak enormous damage to Australian civil society.

“By making it a crime to hold the Australian government to account on human rights, this bill will help shield government from accountability.

“These draconian laws proposed will make Australia more like the authoritarian countries this bill is supposed to protect us from.”

The United Nations (UN) also condemned Australia’s decision in a joint communique.

“We are gravely concerned that the Bill would impose draconian criminal penalties on expression and access to information that is central to public debate and accountability in a democratic society,” the UN said.

“For example, several offences under the Bill would not only penalize disclosures of government information in the public interest, but also expose journalists, activists, and academics that merely receive such information to criminal liability.

“Such extensive criminal prohibitions, coupled with the threat of lengthy custodial sentences and the lack of meaningful defences, are likely to have a disproportionate chilling effect on the work of journalists, whistleblowers, and activists seeking to hold the government accountable to the public.

“We urge the Committee to reconsider the Bill in line with the human rights standards…”

Third-year journalism student Rosie Barnett raised concerns for the future of student journalists.

“As a journalism student, we have always been taught that it is our responsibility as journalists to seek truth and enlighten the public to that truth,” she said.

“If they have to fear possible repercussions of a story, it may deter them from seeking out that particular story in the first place.

“Through inflicting penalties on journalists for publishing information, whether or not it causes harm to Australia’s reputation, is breaching responsibility of journalists to spotlight human rights violations or issues that are important to Australians.”

Ms Barnett said the Bill could endanger the principles of journalism for everyone and worried it could impact Australia’s Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

“I think this bill will have severe ramifications for journalists and journalism students across the country.

“I think it will limit the stories and truth that journalists are able to cover, and I think newspapers and broadcast news will become even more government run than ever.

While the Turnbull government has promised not to use these laws against journalists, there is still no guarantee.

Australian director at Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson said “If the espionage bill isn’t fixed, it will have a chilling effect on disclosing information in the public interest.”

“The proposed espionage law will chill free expression and undermine rather than protect Australia’s democratic values.

“…Australia would be following in the steps of repressive countries like Cambodia and Turkey, whose overbroad espionage laws have been used to jail activists and journalists.”

Ms Barnett said “If we were to have to suppress vital information, then we are not giving truth to the public, but rather aiding in the deception.”

“Enlightening the public to issues in our government should not be a crime comparable to rape and murder… [no one] should be severely punished for exposing violations of human rights.”

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