Senior editors have expressed outrage over new Australian national security legislation, passed yesterday, as the industry mounts an effort to avoid the possibility of journalists and newspaper executives being jailed.
The first tranche of the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 cleared parliament yesterday afternoon after passing through the Senate last week. The laws could allow the jailing of anyone who publishes information relating to secret intelligence operations.
Provisions in the bill open the possibility that a journalist may face up to five years imprisonment for publishing information that relates even vaguely and inadvertently to a special intelligence operation (SIO). If the information endangers the health or safety of any person or prejudices a special intelligence operation, the penalty is up to 10 years jail.
The laws also apply to whistleblowers and under the second tranche of legislation introduced to parliament last week, executives could also be jailed for publishing advertising.
Associate editor at The Australian, Cameron Stewart, who has specialised in investigative reporting on national security, described the laws as “a very disturbing development for press freedom”.
News director at The Age, Mark Forbes, sees it as an attempt to dissuade journalists from probing deeply into national security matters.
“I think it’s hugely concerning, threatening journalists with jail and it seems to be almost reversing the onus of proof against them,” Mr Forbes said. “I don’t see the justification for it.”
The Newspaper Works CEO Mark Hollands said the newspaper industry and other media sectors were currently making strenuous argument in Canberra to avoid this outcome, “but it appears all but inevitable”.
“There is no question of any news organisation seeking to undermine national security, or resisting co-operation with government on such matters,” Mr Hollands said.
“Context is important. When democratic freedoms are seen to be at risk, we must always ensure our response to their defence is not to actually diminish these freedoms.
“Unfortunately, the threat of jail for journalists and other newspaper executives for up to 10 years for publication of an article or an advertisement appears to be just such a response.”
Journalists should be able to report in the public interest without fear or favour, he said, and to do so responsibly without risk of jail or compromise of confidential sources.
“Legislation that would jail an executive for booking and publishing an advertisement, no matter how innocently, equally demonstrates a disproportionate response,” he said.
Under the second tranche of legislation introduced to parliament last week, the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill, publishing a “recruitment advertisement” carries a penalty of up to ten years’ imprisonment.
The Newspaper Works has argued that the true purposes of an advertisement may not always become clear until after publication, and is pushing the government to consider provisions that would exempt people responsible for booking advertising that offends under the new laws “in good faith”.
“All mainstream media understand the seriousness of the situation and the public concern,” Mr Hollands said. “We can see this in the daily diet of news being published and broadcast.
“To punish with jail our nation’s journalists, and/or their colleagues in management and advertising, for executing their work in good faith – and in the belief it is not contrary to the national interest – is a disproportionate response when co-operation and maintenance of our democratic freedoms is the way forward.”
Mr Stewart said although the government claimed that the provisions were not directed towards journalists, the fact was journalists were primarily affected since they were generally the people bringing the targeted information to light.
“Therefore, the reality is, journalists will be the ones in the firing line,” he said.
“It applies to special intelligence operations but journalists won’t know exactly whether they’re reporting on [them or not].”
If the government really believed it was not trying to target journalists, Mr Stewart said, then it should exempt journalists from the legislation.
“In our normal business in national security reporting we do come across sensitive and often classified information, but journalists [and newspapers and media organisations] have been very good, I think, at self-regulating to make sure they don’t print anything to harm national security.
“I don’t see why the government has to put a big stick over us when we’ve been behaving perfectly reasonably up to now.”
Mr Forbes said national security reporting was a difficult and sensitive area to work in because, to be accurate, journalists needed to have some degree of contact with people who work in intelligence and law enforcement. “This is an attempt to disrupt that flow of information at either end.”
Some limits were needed in regard to matters that might directly impinge on ongoing operations, but that could easily be accomplished without having such draconian laws, Mr Forbes argued.
“If you look back at reporting over the years, there is a consistent pattern that intelligence services aren’t perfect,” he said.
“If you allow organisations untrammelled power and a lack of independent oversight from outside government there is a danger that things can run off the rails. People can go too far with the power they have, and more importantly if they do the wrong thing and there’s incompetence going on, it tends to get covered up rather than exposed and addressed.
“Addressing improper behaviour by intelligence and law enforcement is, in the long run, in the public interest.”
Mr Forbes cited the 1983 Sheraton scandal in which a bungled ASIO training operation inflicted extensive damage on the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne.
“The Age had a huge row with ASIO over the fact that we insisted on publishing details of ASIO [sending] trainee agents into fake hostage situations in hotels in the middle of the city that were being used by members of the public without notifying police, the public, or the hotels.
“It shouldn’t have happened, and under these laws, I don’t think it would have been exposed.”
He described the laws as “incredibly retrograde” and urged the government to reconsider.
“We’ve made it quite clear that we think these laws are inappropriate and we don’t accept the assurances that have been given so far that they won’t be misused.
“There can be co-operation, there can be consultation, we don’t want to disrupt national security; but this is about creating a culture of absolute silence and potential cover-up.
“When you give such a cloak of secrecy to any organisation, you create a massive danger.”
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