A new offence of ‘communicating’ classified information about national security will carry a jail term of up to 20 years.
‘Dealing’ with national security classified information? Up to 10 years’ jail.
But according to Australia’s top constitutional, free speech and human rights lawyer Professor George Williams, the new offences and penalties amount to “overkill”, as they are coming on top of 67 anti-terror provisions the Australian parliament has passed since September 11, 2001.
“There’s no parallel in the US for this, even after 9/11. And no parallel even in Israel”, Professor Williams told The New Daily.
Although there is likely to be an element of ambit in the “far too broad” new offences and penalties contained in the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill now before Federal Parliament, any criminal offences ultimately created will have consequences for the public and the media, let alone any Chinese, Russian or ISIS spies and their conduits operating in Australia.
With the Mueller investigation into alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election and the local Dastyari scandal of a phone tap tip-off to a claimed Chinese agent of influence, protecting national sovereignty and security is said to be the primary motivation.
But this week a unity ticket of 14 media organisations – AAP, HT&E, Bauer Media, Fairfax Media, MEAA, FreeTV, ASTRA, Commercial Radio, CBAA, News Corp, ABC, SBS, NewsMediaWorks and The West Australian – all told Canberra’s joint committee on intelligence and security that the Turnbull government’s proposed new secrecy Bill was draconian: “The proposed legislation criminalises all steps of news reporting, from gathering and researching of information to publication/communication, and applies criminal risk to journalists, other editorial staff and support staff who know of the information that is now an offence to ‘deal’ with, hold and communicate.”
Criminalising journalism to keep us safe from traitors, spies and terrorists
The media organisations want the bill amended to include a public interest and news reporting defence covering all provisions on secrecy and espionage.
“This is the only way to ensure public interest reporting can continue and Australians are informed of what is going on in their country.”
Confronted with this media solidarity, Attorney-General Christian Porter is now proposing to apply an A-G’s veto power before the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions can lay any charges against a journalist or media organisation.
So broad are the bill’s provisions that the Inspector General of ASIO and the Commonwealth Ombudsman have warned that their officials could be caught by even ‘dealing’ with complaints involving national security classified information.
Former News Corp Middle East correspondent John Lyons, now heading the ABC’s new investigative unit, said in a tweet: “This is a vital issue. If Malcolm Turnbull gets this law thru it could have a chilling effect on whistleblowers and journalists holding govts to account.”
The parliamentary committee was holding public hearings into the Foreign Interference Bill as the ABC coincidentally exposed the cabinet- in-secret contents of a discarded and locked filing cabinet sold for a few dollars at a Canberra secondhand shop.
The point was immediately made that although the documents were not leaked as an act of subversion by a traitor, the journalists and producers communicating and ‘dealing’ with the security classified material would face jail if the legislation were to be enacted in its current form.
Prof Williams, co-author of A Charter of Rights for Australia, told The New Daily a research audit of statutes had revealed 67 anti-terror laws since 2001 and 350 provisions since Federation in 1901 which were arguably anti-democratic or counter to civil, political or human rights.
In an era of fear about terror and foreign interference, Australians needed to revisit the case for an over-arching bill or charter of rights to protect themselves from the potential for the abuse of power by government and its agencies.
Such a bill or charter would enshrine freedom of speech which would also act as a protective measure for freedom of the press in Australia.