The Australian government has accepted a parliamentary joint committee’s recommended changes to the Foreign Fighters bill and requested the legislation be passed without changes to sections of the bill that could see journalists put in jail.
The committee report recommended 36 amendments to the bill, with reference to the 46 submissions that were received by the committee in response to the bill’s release in September.
In a joint submission to the parliament joint committee earlier this month, a coalition of media organisations expressed concern regarding a section of the Foreign Fighters bill that would make it an offence to publish or broadcast an advertisement or news item that could be considered for the “purpose of recruiting persons to serve in any capacity in or with an armed force in a foreign country”. The range of offences all carried a 10-year jail term.
The document was co-signed by The Newspaper Works, along with its founding members APN, Fairfax Media, News Corp and West Australian Newspapers, as well as organisations including Australian Associated Press, ABC, ASTRA, Bauer Media, Commercial Radio Australia, FreeTV, MEAA and SBS.
The parliamentary joint committee did not recommend any changes to the offences or penalties in this section of the bill, saying in its report that it “did not receive sufficient evidence to form a view with regard to the concern raised by media organisations about offences for the publication of ‘recruitment advertisements’ for foreign armed forces”.
It also said that offences contained in section of the bill containing these offences, section 119.7, have been “taken directly” from the Foreign Incursions Act 1978, and that considering the Act has been in operation for decades “without problems occurring in this area, the committee does not consider further amendment is required”.
The committee report did recommend some minor changes to section 3ZZHA of the bill, which would see journalists face up to two years imprisonment for the disclosure of information regarding the application for or execution of a delayed notification search warrant.
Section 3ZZHA does provide various exceptions, including for disclosure for the purpose of legal proceedings or disclosure after the warrant premise’s occupiers have received notice of the warrant. However, the joint media submission requested the government implement a defence “for a report that is in the public interest”, but this request was not carried in the committee’s report.
However, the committee did recommend that the Attorney-General amend the bill to confirm that the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions take into account the public interest, and public interest in publication, before prosecuting anyone for disclosing information related to a delayed notification search warrant.
Without this amendment, it said, journalists may be jailed for “discharging their legitimate role in our modern democratic society – reporting in the public interest” – however the committee did not recommend a public interest defence be added to the bill for journalists that are charged.
It also advised the government to add three new exceptions to the offence, including the disclosure of information in the course of seeking legal advice, and disclosure of information in the course of inspections by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
The committee also recommended that the government further clarify the meaning of the terms encourage, advocacy and promotion, when used in reference to offences around advocating terrorism.
The government said that implementing the committee’s recommendations and amendments “will further strengthen the provisions of the Bill including the safeguards, transparency and oversight mechanisms.”
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