The Australian government will establish a public interest advocate to force law enforcement agencies to justify their application for a warrant to access journalists’ metadata, after it reached a compromise with the Opposition this week on proposed data retention laws.
Under the deal, news organisations would not know if their metadata was being accessed, but there will now be a process of review for a warrant, which would be contestable.
The compromise was struck because the government wanted to speed up the passage of the proposed laws.
A Fairfax Media spokesperson said: “We are pleased the government and the Opposition have acknowledged the confidentiality of journalist’s sources and the important role this has in the democratic process. The proposed amendments reflect that recognition and are a meaningful improvement on the original Bill.”
The West Australian editor-in-chief Bob Cronin said revelations that journalists would not be able to find out about or report on the existence of a warrant for the collection of their metadata – regardless of whether it was granted, under penalty of two years’ jail – was a serious concern.
“You’ve still got a situation where the journalist is basically under investigation and doesn’t even know it,” Mr Cronin told The Newspaper Works.
“Even in some of the subpoenas [we have been involved with] at least we’ve had a chance to go there and say, ‘hang on a minute, we don’t think this is reasonable’,” he said.
However, while the industry would not cease advocating for better protection under the legislation, the situation is “certainly better than it was.”
News Corp Australia group editorial director Campbell Reid said that while no media company wished to impede national security protections, fundamental freedoms needed to be protected.
“As an overriding principle, we prefer sunlight to darkness, and the fact that these warrants can’t be conducted in an open way … is still a concern,” Mr Reid told The Australian.
The agreement means a planned special parliamentary inquiry into the issue on Friday was cancelled at the last minute.
The hearing, brokered by Labor, had been established to enable media executives to give evidence on the impact data retention would have on the ability of their staffs to undertake investigative journalism.
The Newspaper Works wrote to the Prime Minister’s office on Wednesday, arguing that any “robust judicial warrant process” should include strong threshold conditions for the warrant to be granted in the first place. It also said there should be automatic rights of notification for the journalist and organisation if their metadata was accessed, and the right to a hearing and then to an appeal.
Last week, shadow communication minister Jason Clare told The Newspaper Works that Labor was concerned press freedom would be impacted by the government’s attempts to force telecommunications companies to hold on to metadata from emails, mobile phone use and telephone calls.
“Journalists are different,” Mr Clare said.
“The privacy of their sources is integral to freedom of the press, and sometimes journalists are the ones investigating law enforcement.”
The agreement follows moves earlier this week by the communication minister to reform Australia’s media ownership laws.
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