Publishers to press for data retention changes

Publishers  to press for data retention changesAttorney-General George Brandis, whose new laws are the cause of concern among publishers. PHOTO: CeBIT Australia

Publishers and media chief executives will push back against proposed data retention legislation at a special parliamentary inquiry later this month, established by the ALP in response to concerns the bill would hurt press freedom.

At least eight media executives will front the March 20 hearing to give evidence as to how the proposed laws would affect their organisations’ reporting ability.

Shadow communication minister Jason Clare has been soliciting participation in the hearing over the last week. The potential for data retention to impinge on freedom of the press is the only major point of difference between the ALP and the Coalition in their bipartisanship on national security issues.

“I think it’s very important that the concerns of Australia’s media organisations are made very clear about the potential impact that this legislation will have on press freedom,” Mr Clare told The Newspaper Works.

Shadow communication minister Jason Clare

Shadow communication minister Jason Clare

“We came up with 39 recommendations in the parliamentary joint committee that substantially improved the bill, but this was one area where we couldn’t reach an agreement.”

Mr Clare says his view is that law enforcement agencies should have to apply for a warrant to access a journalist’s telecommunications data.

“The reason for that is that journalists are different.

“The privacy of their sources is integral to freedom of the press and sometimes journalists are the ones investigating law enforcement,” he said.

The Newspaper Works chief executive Mark Hollands attended the original round of hearings with the Right to Know media coalition, and said the proposed laws clash with existing protections for whistleblowers and journalists.

“This is a welcome second opportunity to restate the case,” Mr Hollands said.

“In debating whether such a change should occur, politicians must be mindful that they cannot protect our freedom by restricting it.”

New Australian Press Council chairman David Weisbrot has taken a strong stance against the proposed laws, and joined Mr Clare in supporting a warrant system for the access of journalists’ telecommunications metadata.

Metadata is information like the duration and recipient of a phone call, or the time of day that an email was sent, but not the actual content of those communications.

“Investigative journalists … rely on insiders, whether it’s in government or corporations or statutory authorities, to come forward with confidential information,” Mr Weisbrot said.

“If there’s going to be constant surveillance … you would have to give them all those warnings, in good conscience.

“If you’re already a very nervous whistleblower, and wondering if this is a crazy thing you’re doing anyway, I would have thought that would be the end of it.”

Mr Weisbrot said even the previously-safe option of only transacting information in person would no longer be safe.

“We could go back to the 1970s Deep Throat sort of thing, where you meet there in a parking garage, but even then you wouldn’t be able to drive there because of your GPS, and you wouldn’t be able to take your smart phone because of all the information it has.”

The chief executive of APN, Michael Miller, said that the collection of metadata should be reserved only for national security and criminal law enforcement issues.

“The legislation proposed is too broad and the amendments we are proposing ensures we can continue to protect the public’s right to know.”

News Corp Australia chief executive Julian Clarke said the drive to address national security issues risked permanently damaging the Australian news media.

“Our concern is that in our desire to assist governments in matters of national security, we do not lose the right for the public to anonymously approach the media in matters that are in public interest,” Mr Clarke said in a statement to The Newspaper Works.

He said if people don’t feel like they can safely talk to journalists, “this will undermine one of the fundamental tenets of our democracy – namely the public’s right to know.”

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