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Government feels publisher heat on spy laws

Continued publisher pressure over the Australian government’s proposed espionage laws has caused Attorney General Christian Porter to soften his stance on the controversial restrictions.

Mr Porter was initially reluctant to make changes to the Bill, but has since relented. The revisions will largely “do with the tightening of the drafting to provide certainty, particularly for journalists”.

Under the changes, a lesser charge would be given to journalists and other non-government officials who are found in breach of the law, while government officials will be prosecuted more harshly.

The need for journalists to prove a report is “fair and accurate” also will removed, however, the provision to prove a story is in the public interest remains. It is unclear how the government will define “public interest”.

The Bill as it currently stands would seriously limit the ability of journalists to report and gather news pertaining to national security, making it an offence for media to even obtain classified information.

Journalists found in breach of the secrecy law could spend from seven to 20 years in prison.

Mr Porter’s stance follows an announcement by federal opposition leader Bill Shorten that Labor would not support the passing of laws.

Mr Shorten said that while Labor would always support strengthened national security, he would not allow it at the risk of diminishing press freedoms.

“If these laws don’t adequately protect journalists doing their job, the government needs to fix its mistakes,” he said. “I won’t support laws that see journalists imprisoned simply for doing their jobs.

“We have to get the balance right and that includes ensuring we have a strong media,” he said.

“I’m not sure if this is sloppy drafting or deliberately designed by the government to curtail media freedom.”

The government attempted to rush the Bill through the parliament at the end of 2017, hidden by discussion surrounding the Marriage Act reforms.

Immediate pressure from publishers forced the bill to go up for further discussions.

A group of 15 Australian publishers, including Fairfax Media, News Corp Australia, Seven West Media and NewsMediaWorks, submitted a joint paper to the government stating they would not support the changes.

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