Broadcast and print media have combined to lodge a submission to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, listing major concerns over the possible impact of national security laws on journalists and advertising staff.
The joint submission argues that certain provisions in the proposed Foreign Fighters Bill 2014 would “erode freedom of communication and freedom of the media”.
It also would place staff in the firing line for doing their jobs, in addition to employees of media agencies and company officers – with the prospect of up to 10 years jail if an advertisement or news item is found to be in breach.
The document has been 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.
In the submission, the news organisations say that “free speech, a free media and access to information” are fundamental to a democratic society. Journalists should be able to work without fear of being jailed, and that confidential sources and whistle-blowers should be protected, it says.
The proposed Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014, would make it an offence, under division 119.7 of the bill, to publish 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 list of offences related to publishing potential “recruitment advertisements” for foreign fighters, under division 119.7, all carry punishments of 10 years imprisonment.
Commentators already have pointed out that such an advertisement might not be determined to be for purposes of recruitment for some time after publication, but the employee still could be liable under the law.
The joint media organisation submission says that possible breaches of these provisions could apply to people employed by a media company’s advertising arm or agency, newsroom and production staff, a director of a company, editors, producers, journalists and others.
It states that the bill introduces a serious risk to the innocent publication of advertisements and news items. “This is particularly the case when the advertisements or news items may, on face value, be benign and indeed legitimate, and also lack ‘reckless’ conduct in their publishing,” the submission states.
“To illustrate, if a broadcaster or publisher was to run an advertisement or a news item about a prayer meeting or a picnic, and it comes to pass that the event – which may or may not have been central to the advertisement or story – was used as cover for a recruitment drive or to disseminate information about, or direct people to another source of information about possible opportunities to serve in armed forces in foreign countries, then it is possible that any or all people involved in broadcasting or publishing the advertisement or story would be imprisoned for 10 years.”
“This would be the case even if the conduct was not ‘reckless.’”
The submission recommends that subsection 119.7(3) of the bill – which covers publishing information about how one may serve, or obtain information to serve with an armed force in a foreign country – be removed from the bill.
It also states that there are inconsistent penalties for breaches of subsections (1), (2) and (3) of division 119.7 of the bill. All offences carry a punishment of 10 years in prison, rather than a sliding-scale application for issuing penalties which the submission recommends the government implement.
The submission also recommends the removal of section 3ZZHA of the bill, which would be inserted into the Crimes Act 1914 under the proposed legislation if passed, and covers the “unauthorised disclosure of information” related to delayed notification search warrants.
Section 3ZZHA, would see journalists jailed for “reporting in the public interest” and discourage whistle-blowing, according to the submission, and carries a punishment of two years imprisonment for those that breach it.
A separate tranche of legislation, the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014, which passed the Senate October 1, contains provisions that would allow the imprisonment of journalists for up to five years for publishing information related to a special intelligence operation (SIO), and up to 10 years jail if that content can be said to prejudice the SIO or endanger anyone’s health or safety.
Submissions to the Foreign Fighters Bill 2014 closed on October 3, after the bill was initially released to the public on September 23. Other submissions to the bill came from groups such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian Privacy Foundation, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Australian Federal Police, a joint submission from various civil liberties councils, and others.