It’s the oldest trick in the political theatre book: after the legislative victory on marriage equality earlier this month, which saw a 61% landslide majority voting YES for gay rights and liberties under Australia’s conservative prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, that same man is proposing legislation that could destroy press rights and liberties right under our noses.
In a new bombshell report from, of all places, BuzzFeed News, sweeping changes to the Crimes Act of 1914, introduced to parliament’s House of Representatives by the prime minister himself, could see intelligence whistleblowers and even journalists facing up to 20 years in prison for “disclosing classified information” to foreign powers from China to Russia.
“Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad,” Mr Turnbull told the ABC, addressing both the RussiaGate conspiracies highlighted in today’s American media and the recent corruption scandal regarding the Chinese government and former member of parliament for the Labor Party, Sam Dastyari.
To combat future conflicts of interest, in addition to anything considered “espionage,” the prime minister’s legislation will attempt to create a transparency scheme very similar to the US Foreign Agents Registry, a practice which requires people and organizations to declare whether they are working for or on behalf of foreign powers, among harsher provisions for those who commit “aggravating offences” as whistleblowers.
On TrigTent, we’ve already discussed the potential worries of the foreign agency registry in regards to press freedom, pointing to the unequal treatment enforced on the outlet RT, formerly named Russia Today. Faced with threats of thousands of dollars of fines and potential arrests, the news outlet was the first in American history to be forced into foreign agency status, despite other foreign news organizations like Britain’s BBC and Qatar’s Al Jazeera seeing no similar actions.
These new Australian laws will apply to anyone, not just government officials, which raises concerns given the lack of clear first amendment-like protections afforded to America’s press. Once again, government giving the fox the keys to the hen-house.
Under this legislation, the Australian government could, in effect, brand anyone who deals with this information as an unregistered foreign agent (which already itself would be a crime), brand that information they want hidden as classified and too problematic to release under their own definitions of what is or is not in the interest of national security, and target those people and outlets for these actions, such as Australia’s own watchdog Wikileaks and sources in former contractor for the NSA, Edward Snowden.
BuzzFeed explains journalists do have a defense in the proposal, however, it comes with an evidential burden similar to the controversial provisions 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. In that particular legislation, certain Australian citizens have found themselves the subject of court trials over whether their speech, from press criticism to social media jokes, are “legitimate,” with 18C explaining racial vilification can’t be done to insult, offend and humiliate someone, in public, based on race, and 18D only expanding protections if the criticism is “fair and accurate reporting.”
Similar evidence burdens will be offered to journalists, who will be allowed to publish information freely if it is “in the public interest” and is “in the person’s capacity as a journalist engaged in fair and accurate reporting.” No definition of journalist or source is provided in the bill, which could be seen as a conscious choice. The evolving news media have seen the rise of unconventional new media, such as WikiLeaks, what we do here on outlets like TrigTent and even users on Medium who can be thought to operate as journalists in their own right.
The legislation also has a clear paranoid opinion of what constitutes a violation of serious national security:
“Even small amounts of such information could, when taken together with other information, compromise national security, regardless of the apparent sensitivity … For example, even seemingly innocuous pieces of information, such as the amount of leave available to staff members or their salary, can yield significant counterintelligence dividends to a foreign intelligence service,” the bill outright saying they don’t even want the most basic of details, including the salaries of government (tax) paid members, to be disclosed to the public.
Where are the fiscal hawks on this? They want to know where your money comes from if it’s from Russia and China, making it known who exactly you’re (supposedly) working for, but if you dare ask how much in tax they’re pocketing, it’s governmental haram. Shh.
Where America’s first amendment would never allow a journalist, however they are defined or undefined, to see the inside of a courtroom, let alone prison, for just reporting information and offering free comment, the legislation would leave the Australian news media in jeopardy.
Resulting in potential 18C-like cases made against SkyNews’ Andrew Bolt, who was fined under the racial discrimination act for off-color commentary frowned upon by the judicial branch, and Australian teenagers dragged through court, only to have the case rejected after thousands of dollars in legal fees.
A kangaroo-court, by any other name, is just as ridiculous.