Australian Attorney-General George Brandis has raised the possibility that he be given the power of veto over any prosecution for offences under new legislation that covers the reporting of special intelligence operations.
The suggestion followed the release of a letter on Wednesday by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten calling on Prime Minster Tony Abbott to review national security legislation that could result in the jailing of journalists.
Mr Brandis said it was highly unlikely a journalist would ever be targeted for doing his or her job. However in response to media concerns he offered to use his existing powers to direct the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions against launching action against a journalist if he considered it inappropriate.
The move prompted immediate criticism from media companies.
News Corp Australia group editorial director Campbell Reid told Sky News: “Our point is that rather than having George Brandis or a subsequent attorney-general intervening on this, there are easy and sensible ways that the legislation itself can be amended so that the jeopardy to journalists doing their jobs is removed in the legislation.”
In Mr Shorten’s letter to the Prime Minister he wrote that the new laws could compromise press freedom, despite their importance in protecting national security.
Prior to Mr Shorten’s letter, the government provided little opposition to offences in the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) that related to journalists and media.
The letter requested a review by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor of the provisions in the bill relevant to media reporting. Mr Shorten has asked for the monitor to report by the end of June.
However, this cannot occur until a monitor is appointed to replace Bret Walker SC, whose three year term ended in April this year.
According to AAP, Mr Shorten’s letter said “it is also important that, by legislating to address the terrorist threat, we do not ourselves destroy the very democratic freedoms that we are seeking to protect.”
However, Mr Shorten told Mr Abbott in the letter that he had changed his mind about these provisions after “a number of concerns about the potential impact of these laws on the media reporting of legitimate matters of public interest” had been raised with him.
In parliament on Wednesday the Senate passed the second tranche of legislation, the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014, 43 votes to 12.
Labor Senator Jacinta Collins issued a last minute motion to have a “good faith” exception added to the bill, however this amendment was voted down.
The third tranche of national security legislation, which will focus on data retention, was introduced to parliament on Thursday.