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How Australia's security bill threatens journalists and whistleblowers

Mounted police keep order as protestors gather at State Parliament in Melbourne, on Australia Day, 26 January 2018
Mounted police keep order as protestors gather at State Parliament in Melbourne, on Australia Day, 26 January 2018

James D. Morgan/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 25 January 2018.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Australian government to remove secrecy and espionage provisions from a proposed national security law that could result in journalists being sent to prison just for doing their job.

Several provisions in the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government plans to submit soon to the federal parliament have raised fears about their impact on media freedom in Australia because they are poorly conceived and drafted.

One of its biggest flaws is its expanded definition of espionage, which would consist not only of communicating classified information but also receiving and possessing it. RSF supports the warning about the bill that 15 Australian media outlets sent this week to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security.

"We fully support our Australian media colleagues in their damning condemnation of this ill-conceived and oppressive bill, which is supposedly intended to combat espionage but which, in practice, criminalizes all stages of journalistic work," said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk.

"If this bill were passed, journalists receiving sensitive information they had not sought would automatically be in violation of the law. If this law had existed in the United States in 1974, the Watergate scandal would never have come to light. The government must quickly rethink its espionage provisions before presenting this bill to parliament."

If the bill were passed in its present form, journalists could face up to five years for being in possession of sensitive documents in the public interest and up to 15 years for communicating them.


Catch-all phrases

Another major problem is the bill's definition of "classified information" as information that could "cause harm to Australia's interests" - a catch-all phrase that could prevent any investigative reporting on national security issues unless approved by the government.

Finally, a provision prohibits journalists from providing any "support or resources" to a foreign intelligence agency. Here again, appallingly vague wording could result in a reporter being jailed simply for presenting a foreign entity in light that was deemed to be positive.

In their submission to parliament, the Australian media outlets draw a parallel between the bill and the situation in Turkey, where a Wall Street Journal reporter was sentenced to two years in prison on a terrorist propaganda charge for interviewing members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) while covering the conflict in Kurdistan.

RSF urges Australia's parliamentarians to take great care when debating this bill and to ensure that its espionage provisions are completely overhauled in order to guarantee press freedom and the provision of information in the public interest.

Australia is ranked 19th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

Read the joint statement that 15 Australian media outlets sent to the parliamentary committee on security.

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