The Government is trying to sneak through a law designed to prevent journalists from reporting on leaks about intelligence operations.
The media is saying things like "Journalists will face jail over spy leaks under new security laws", which the Attorney General George Brandis has dismissed as an over- reaction, assuring everyone that the ASIO Act changes he is pushing do not target journalists at all. So, what's the truth?
Actually it's pretty bad, and the AG either hasn't read his own legislation or is being very liberal with the truth.
It's buried deep in a vast mass of amendments to the ASIO Act. A new section 35P creates a criminal offence of disclosing information that relates to a "special intelligence operation". The penalty is up to 10 years in prison.
"Special intelligence operation" (SIO) is a new concept too. Basically it's any spying operation which will involve breaking laws (like, say, hacking the Indonesian President's phone). If ASIO deems such an operation to be an SIO, then everyone's immune from prosecution for breaking those pesky laws. And, yes, it's ASIO itself which will determine what's special and what isn't. No independent oversight.
So – once we have an SIO, which is of course always going to be classified, then s35P kicks in. If a whistleblower leaks information relating to the SIO to a journalist, then not only does the whistleblower commit an offence, but if the journalist publishes it then so will they.
There is no defence of ignorance, or innocent dissemination, or protection for journalists, or public interest, or anything else. There's no requirement that the journalist knows or even suspects that the information relates to an SIO. The only requirements for the offence to be proved are that there is an SIO and that the information has been disclosed.
This couldn't happen in the US or UK, which have protections for free speech that would prevent a law like this from being passed. In Australia, we have no such protection. The practical reality of this law is that journalists will simply not know, when they are investigating and reporting on matters relating to spying or national security, whether they are risking committing an offence. The chilling effect, on investigative journalism and on the public's right to know what its government is doing in its name, is obvious.
Basically, this is a big Don't Argue to the media from our freedom-loving Federal Government. As the Prime Minister is fond of saying, if you're not on Team Australia…