Publishers in new fight on ASIO laws

Publishers in new  fight on ASIO lawsAttorney-General George Brandis | IMAGE: News Corp Australia

Reporting in the public interest could be stifled by the Abbott government’s new national security laws, publishers have told an inquiry into changes to the ASIO Act.

The changes were introduced by the Abbott government last year in section 35P of the Act, which makes it an offence to report on special intelligence operations and could see journalists jailed for five years if they unwittingly do so.

The inquiry is part of a review into the new national security laws by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor. A coalition of Australian publishers and media organisations, including The Newspaper Works, APN, Fairfax Media, News Corp Australia, AAP, SBS, The West Australian and the ABC is arguing section 35P should be repealed entirely.

The restrictions on disclosures about special operations do not time out, meaning nobody would ever be legally able to write about such operations, the coalition argues.

News Corp Australia group editorial director Campbell Reid told the inquiry that in light of the government’s concerns about radicalisation in the suburbs, “the Australian public has an overwhelming need and right to know what is going on in our society at this point”.

He said information that could help parents understand the “threat that their children are faced with” would not be reported, and that journalists would be prevented from covering any and all special intelligence operations, even successful ones.

Mr Reid described the laws as “a terribly dangerous place for us to find ourselves.”

“All tranches of the 2014-2015 national security amendment bills enacted provisions that limit freedom of the media, and require review by the Monitor,” the media coalition said in its submission to the inquiry.

“We remain concerned about the provisions that limit freedom of the media separately and in aggregate. These provisions make it increasingly difficult for news gathering and reporting in the public interest. This does not in any manner support the Australian public’s right to know.

The submission argues that journalists will be exposed to an “unacceptable level of risk” because there is no way of knowing whether the matter they are reporting on is related to a special operation, due to the secretive nature of such operations in the first place.

“Notwithstanding this, the declaration of [a special operation] enables covert ASIO operatives to undertake a range of activities that would otherwise be … criminal acts.

“Section 35P of the ASIO Act would preclude public interest reporting about an ASIO operative that acted corruptly while serving under [a special operation].”

The coalition set out a number of scenarios where it believes there would be a realistic risk a reporter would be jailed.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon and Dr Clinton Fernandes from the University of NSW argue in their own submission that the 1983 ASIS hostage training debacle could well be declared a special intelligence operation if it happened today.

That would mean a journalist who reported on it could face years in prison.

The combination of the government’s new data retention laws and section 35P of the ASIO Act has created a “perfect storm against investigative journalists and whistleblowers” that will have a “suffocating effect on the free press in Australia,” Mr Xenophon and Mr Fernandes wrote.

Coverage of the Gallipoli campaign might hypothetically have been impossible had there been such laws in 1916, Mr Xenophon added.

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