SYDNEY: The Coalition has been forced to significantly amend its proposed foreign interference laws after warnings from media organisations, Labour and the Greens that the legislation would criminalise public interest journalism.
The bill contains prison sentences of up to 20 years for dealing with or publishing protected information such as material that is harmful or likely to harm Australia’s interests, subject to very limited exemptions for public interest journalism.
Under changes revealed late on Wednesday by the attorney general, Christian Porter, people not employed by the commonwealth, including journalists, will only be liable in serious circumstances where they willingly communicate “secret” information that endangers the health and safety of the public or prejudices national security.
The media will not get a blanket exemption but existing defences will be easier to access as journalists will no longer be required to prove their work is “fair and accurate”, only that they “reasonably believe” it is in the public interest.
Porter said that Malcolm Turnbull had instructed that the national security legislation amendment (espionage and foreign interference) bill “must clearly match the government’s intent not to unnecessarily restrict freedom of communication”.
“There is no desire by the Turnbull government to limit the legitimate work of journalists or their employers,” he said. “A free media is a foundation of our democratic system.”
“There is not, nor has there ever been, any plan by the government to see journalists going to jail simply for receiving documents, and that would not occur under this bill as currently drafted.
“The proposed government amendments I have instructed will make this completely clear and further strengthen protections for journalists.”
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance have called for a blanket exemption for journalists, which Porter said the government is “not inclined to accept”. But he also conceded that “further refinements may also be required in the future”.
In other changes, the offences that apply to Commonwealth officers will be narrowed by changing the definitions of “conduct that would cause harm to Australia’s interests” and “inherently harmful information”.
Morry Bailes, president of the Law Council of Australia, said the changes were a step in the right direction but there was “still a considerable way to go” to get the measures right.
“The Law Council’s greatest concern is with the depth and breadth of the provisions and the unintended consequences that flow from them,” Bailes said.
“It is essential that there be an express harm requirement inserted into the legislation, to absolutely ensure that the offences only apply to the most serious and dangerous conduct.”
On Tuesday, Bill Shorten announced the opposition would not support the foreign interference espionage bill unless journalists were adequately protected but it is not clear if the changes will be sufficient to win Labour support.
Shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, told Radio National it was good that Porter had “cleaned up part of the mess left behind by George Brandis” but Labour would wait to see details of the changes.
“Some lawyers have already said they don’t think the way in which the changes have been described that they go far enough.”
He targeted Turnbull for introducing the “extraordinarily overbroad” and “harsh” bill on 7 December.
Dreyfus noted that the foreign interference package had been met with “howls of outrage” not just from journalists but also charities, universities, and business.
“They’ve all said that the four bills, not just the one bill on espionage and secrecy, but the four bills that the government has introduced are all an overreach,” he said.
On Wednesday the special minister of state, Mathias Cormann, conceded the Coalition may have to make changes to the foreign donations ban bill, as crossbench senators revolt over the administrative burden it places on minor parties, charities, and activists.