Several media organisations, including Fairfax Media, News Corp Australia, AAP and NewsMediaWorks, have made a joint submission to the review committee of the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill, calling for the further consideration of proposed amendments to create further clarity in the Bill’s wording.
It again called for exemptions for public interest reporting, as the threat of jail penalties still remained for journalists essentially “doing their jobs”.
The implications on the wording and the limited legal protections presented in the Bill were extensively explored in an eight-page submission and two subsequent supplementary documents.
“Notwithstanding the amendments, it remains the case that journalists and their support staff continue to risk jail time for simply doing their jobs. This is why we believe that the way in which to deal with this appropriately is to provide an exemption for public interest reporting,” the most recent supplement read.
“The right to free speech, a free media and access to information are fundamental to Australia’s modern democratic society, a society that prides itself on openness, responsibility and accountability.
“However, unlike some comparable modern democracies, Australia has no laws enshrining these rights.
“Therefore we do not resile from our long-held recommendation for exemptions for public interest reporting in response to legislation that criminalises journalists for going about their jobs. The lack of such a protection – and the ever-increasing offences that criminalise journalists for doing their jobs – stops the light being shone on issues that the Australian public has a right to know.”
Under the current amendments, any person who “deals with” information, which includes receiving, possessing, communicating and “making record of” such information pertaining to national security may be convicted and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
Media organisations argue there is “no justification for the breadth of the scope of the definition”. Particular concern was raised over receiving verbal information, which cannot be surrendered or destroyed. The removal of this term, or at the very least a refining of definition, was recommended.
The same recommendation was also given to the “highly subjective” phrase “fair and objective”.
While some protections are in place under these grounds, the limited nature of defences was explored, with recommendations made to broaden the terms.
Defences currently cover only journalists, however, the wording of the Bill states that anybody who deals with information may be prosecuted – leaving editorial staff, legal advisers and executive assistants without protection.
The submission recommends protections be extended to cover all those in the editorial chain and an exemption be made for public interest reporting.