Comments by Australian Press Council chairman David Weisbrot in support of a review of the federal government’s metadata laws have won backing from major publishers.
Prof Weisbrot said the metadata retention laws – which have been heavily criticised for their potential impact on press freedom – threatened the future of investigative journalism and “way overreach the legitimate security concerns that the government has”.
“We need to go back and revisit those laws. I think we’ve got a law in there that we’re going to have to chip away with and improve over time,” he said.
Prof Weisbrot noted that the new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has previously been outspoken on freedom of the press and his elevation would provide an opportunity to “discuss how you want to move forward” in relation to the metadata legislation.
His comments were welcomed by The Australian which published an editorial on Tuesday that said without safeguards for journalists in the legislation, investigative journalism and the public interest would suffer.
“We have no quarrel with the law’s broad purpose to preserve metadata … But the original bill made no concession whatsoever to the imperative that journalists’ sources be protected.” – The Australian
“We have no quarrel with the law’s broad purpose to preserve metadata … But the original bill made no concession whatsoever to the imperative that journalists’ sources be protected,” the editorial said.
“Malcolm Turnbull, in an early interview as Prime Minister, has set out one of the strongest and most eloquent defences of media freedom in a long time.
“As for Professor Weisbrot, his advocacy for press freedom is a breath of fresh air.”
The Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden said Fairfax editors were very supportive of Prof Weisbrot’s efforts.
“There is no question that these laws can be used to identify a journalist’s sources without directly targeting the journalist’s own metadata,” Mr Holden said.
“Though the intent, as expressed by politicians, is not to impinge on the activities of journalists, the potential remains, and we should ensure that the legislation is drafted carefully to protect free speech in Australia.
“As Laurie Oakes explained so effectively in his speech to the Press Freedom Dinner in Melbourne last Friday, section 35P of the ASIO Act and the Foreign Fighters Bill will also restrict what can be published. The former means we would not be able to highlight, for example, the bungled ASIO raid in Melbourne many years ago, and the latter has the potential to limit open debate.”
The metadata retention laws which come into effect on October 13 require telecommunications companies to store a range of information relating to phone, text message and email usage of all Australians for a minimum of two years for access by law and security agencies.
To allay concerns that the legislation could be used to expose whistleblowers and journalist’s sources, the government introduced several safeguard provisions including the establishment of a public interest advocate who would examine whether a journalist’s communication compromised national security.
However Prof Weisbrot described the public interest advocate – who would operate in a secretive process and without the input of the journalist or media organisation in question – as a “Kafkaesque system”.
Prof Weisbrot said another area in need of reform was defamation, which Fairfax’s Mr Holden said needs a national overhaul.
“The most direct threat we face every day is the operation of our defamation laws. They are being used far too often in an attempt to hinder or shut down journalism,” Mr Holden said.