New bill in Australia targeting intelligence raises concern

New York, July 17, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a bill introduced in the Australian parliament on Wednesday that could result in journalists being targeted for prosecution and jail for reporting on intelligence information.

The bill includes the creation of a new offense punishable by five years in prison for “any person” who discloses information relating to “special intelligence operations,” reports said. In special intelligence operations, intelligence officers could be immune from prosecution if they engage in conduct that would be otherwise illegal, reports said. According to Australian lawyers, journalists could face prosecution and imprisonment if they report on spy operations or Edward Snowden-style leaked material, the Guardian reported.

Attorney General George Brandis proposed the bill, which the government claims is being introduced to update the country’s security laws. Brandis said the bill was designed to close gaps under existing laws, which criminalize communicating intelligence material to third parties. The current laws do not specify acts of copying, transcribing, retaining, or recording intelligence material as crimes. Critics of the bill call the proposed revisions “Snowden clauses.”

“There is potential here for journalists to face prosecution and years in jail simply for doing their work,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. “This proposed legislation would almost certainly have a chilling effect on news reporting in Australia, and we call on legislators to ensure that it does not become law in its current form.”

Greg Barns, a criminal lawyer and a spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, told the Guardian, “It’s an unprecedented clause, which would capture the likes of WikiLeaks, the Guardian, The New York Times and any other media organization that reports on such material.” Civil liberties groups have also expressed concern that the bill would grant sweeping powers for surveillance of all Australians, according to local reports.

Brandis referred the bill to a parliamentary committee on intelligence and security. Lawmakers will debate on the bill in September, the reports said.