Press freedom in the frame

With the Australian parliament passing significant changes to national security legislation this week, MARK HOLLANDS spells out the risk some changes mean to a free press

The stench of Big Brother continues to permeate society and threaten press freedom in democratic nations.

Its clearest manifestation in recent months has been an Australian government-supported inquiry into Potential Reforms of Australia’s National Security Legislation, which canvasses an authority to jail journalists for doing their jobs. It wishes to do this by substantially altering two existing Acts – the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act (1979) and the Intelligence Services Act (2001).

In this sea of legislative paper which is now before parliament, one modified section of the 1979 Act – 35P(1) – would seek to create an offence for a person disclosing information relating to a special intelligence operation (SIO).

Newspaper publishers believe this creates potential for jailing journalists.

The situation for editors and their reporters is perilous given SIOs are by definition covert, so a journalist would not necessarily be aware their article or photography would compromise such an operation.

Further, whistle-blowers inside government could be jailed for up to 10 years for disclosing SIO details, regardless of whether such information was in the public interest. Currently, the penalty is two years.

Government’s desire to review national security is understandable given the prevailing risks. No one would dispute the geopolitical dangers that has emanated from the rise of the Islamic State.

The proposed changes go beyond the threat of jail time for journalists and extend to altering the ASIO Act to permit monitoring of computer networks, which would undermine the confidentiality of journalist sources if surveillance was applied to media owners’ computer networks.

Thoughtlessly trampling on press freedom and the confidentiality of sources, with the sword of incarceration hanging over journalists and editors, undermines a fundamental democratic principle in our society.

It is also unnecessary. There is a strong history of government and publishers working together for the national good, based on respect for the independence and authority of the Fourth Estate. That trust, at least within the present government, appears to have been eroded by the proliferation of communications technology, and the disclosure of US government files by WikiLeaks and the stolen files given to The Guardian by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The Australian government can demonstrate the sincerity of its belief in a free press by talking to news media owners about how to best handle national security risks.

Our industry, albeit competitive and occasionally excitable, understands the challenge but fears that without active co-operation, a serious mistake, or a well-meaning but wrong judgment, will be made and journalists unfairly punished. Local journalists have greater reason to be suspicious of governments and dislike this type of intimidation. Australia, for example, still criminalises defamation – they don’t even do that in Uganda.

Aidan White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network in the UK, said at a recent WAN-IFRA conference that publishers required political will to engage with increasingly restrictive government legislation in the aftermath of WikiLeaks and the Snowden affair.

He asked of his publisher audience, “Are we losing that political will when it comes to the major democracies?”

Our industry is not nearly so moribund as to fail to understand government must protect its citizens, and that as the media, we have responsibilities to society beyond printing stories. We take this burden seriously. Equally, government should not be so cavalier as to presume to draft legislation that undermines press freedom and pretend it is not a cornerstone of our democracy, and that it really doesn’t matter.

It does matter, and there is a better way.

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