Pacific Media Centre Pacific Media Watch Pacific Journalism Review Asia Pacific Report

AUSTRALIA: State seeks 20 year jail terms in draconian gag laws

The regime raises fresh concerns for prospective whistleblowers, journalists, and also mass leak publication sites such as WikiLeaks. Image: PMW File

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Item: 10047

SYDNEY (BuzzFeed/Pacific Media Watch): Australian government and intelligence whistleblowers – and potentially even journalists – may face up to 20 years in jail for disclosing classified information, under the most sweeping changes to the country’s secrecy laws since they were introduced, reports Paul Farrell for BuzzFeed.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a broad package of reforms aimed at curbing foreign interference from countries including China and Russia.

The legislation was introduced by Turnbull in the House of Representatives immediately after marriage equality passed last Thursday evening, and the otherwise full House of Representatives was emptied as celebrations were underway.

While the reforms have been flagged for many months, they were only introduced on the last sitting day of parliament this year, and go much further than previously believed.

Unexpectedly, the reforms include sweeping changes to longstanding secrecy laws, which are modelled on Britain’s Official Secrets Act.

The regime raises fresh concerns for prospective whistleblowers, journalists, and also mass leak publication sites such as WikiLeaks. A series of “aggravating” offences will also hamper large-scale leaks like those from former US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Current law criticised
Currently, a single offence under the Crimes Act prohibits disclosures of almost any information by Commonwealth officers. This has been roundly criticised by news organisations and human rights groups, and the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) has recommended changes to curb the scope of information captured by the offence. A further “official secrets” offence also potentially criminalises any disclosure, although the threshold for this offence is high and it has been rarely invoked.

Under the proposed new regime, both offences will be repealed entirely and replaced by several new offences inserted into the Commonwealth Criminal Code. While a seven-year jail sentence is the maximum available under the existing laws, this will be radically increased to up to 20 years for the most serious aggravating in the proposed laws.

The new laws will apply to anyone, not just government officials.

They could easily apply to journalists and organisations like WikiLeaks that “communicate” or “deal” with information, instead of just government officials. They will also close a longstanding gap around contractors working on behalf of government agencies, who will also be subject to the new offences.

The bill’s explanatory memorandum highlights that it seeks to prevent the publication of almost any information from intelligence agencies, giving the example of salary information of officers.

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