New legislation a potential threat to press freedom

New York, October 10, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the press freedom implications of proposed Australian legislation that would give the federal police commissioner powers to unilaterally block Internet content that he or she “has reason to believe … is crime or terrorist related.”

The Communications Legislation Amendment (Crime or Terrorism Related Internet Content) was introduced before the Senate by Communications Minister and Sen. Helen Coonan on September 13 and is now in its second reading. It seeks to expand the list of censored sites in Australia, according to news reports. That list currently focuses on pornographic content, those reports said.

The legislation aims to give federal police broad new discretionary powers in considering whether information published online threatens national security. The bill defines offending content as that which “encourages, incites or induces,” or is “likely to have the effect of facilitating,” an offense against the commonwealth. Police would be empowered to order the Australian Communications and Media Agency to censor specific Web sites and require individual Internet service providers to “take reasonable steps” to block content blacklisted by the authorities, according to reports.

A spokesman for Coonan told the Australian press that the legislation “is not really about censorship” but would target “sites established by criminals.” Local advocacy and rights groups have countered that the language of the bill is so vague that it would invite broad application. “These laws would be open to massive abuses,” Electronic Frontiers Australia Chairman Dale Clapperton has said in public comments. He said the legislation, for example, could be used to block access to Web sites organizing public demonstrations. “The reference to terrorism-related Internet content is a transparent attempt to deter criticism of the bill,” he added.

“The proposed censorship legislation is worryingly out of step with Australia’s well-earned reputation for press freedom,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “We call on the Australian parliament to reject this legislation in its current form and ensure that any other Internet-related legislation explicitly protects journalists and guarantees press freedom.”
If the Senate assents to the legislation following a third reading it would pass to the House of Representatives for review and acceptance. The Australian Constitution does not contain any clause relating expressly to freedom of speech.