Australia's national security bills threaten press freedom

September 30, 2014 3:19 PM ET

New York, September 30, 2014--The Committee to Protect Journalists said it is gravely concerned by a national security-related bill in Australia, which could result in prison time of up to 10 years for journalists who report on intelligence. The National Security Reform Bill One was passed in the upper house on Thursday and would become law if passed by the lower house this week as expected, according to reports.

The government has said the bill, which was introduced in July, was designed to close gaps under existing national security laws.

Under the bill, anyone who discloses or publishes information about "special intelligence operations" can face five or 10 years in prison, according to news reports. The bill provides for no exceptions for journalists, meaning they could face jail time for reporting on intelligence-related matters, according to media organizations and lawyers, the reports said.

The bill also criminalizes copying, transcribing, retaining, or recording intelligence material, a step that critics say is a direct response to leaks by whistleblower and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, news accounts said.

Finally, the bill would provide intelligence agencies with sweeping powers to engage in surveillance, the reports said. According to the attorney general, under the bill, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the country's national security agency, would be able to use one warrant to access numerous devices on a network, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

"This national security bill and other draft legislation raise grave concerns about the direction in which Australia is heading," said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. "These bills would seriously hamper reporting in the public interest and we urge lawmakers to add the necessary safeguards to protect journalists and whistleblowers."

A second anti-terrorism bill would make it a criminal offense to travel to certain conflict zones, a move the government says is aimed at stopping Australian citizens from traveling to engage in terrorist activities. Under the bill, which was introduced in the upper house on September 24 and is expected to be debated in parliament next month, defendants--whether journalists, human rights activists, or aid workers--have to show a legitimate reason for traveling to these zones in order to avoid prosecution, according to The Guardian.

A third bill, which would require telecommunications groups and Internet providers to retain metadata for a period of up to two years, is expected to be introduced later this year, reports said. Current laws in Australia allow virtually any government agency warrantless access to Web and phone data, but no retention period is mandated, according to news accounts.

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