Australia’s largest media organisations have warned the Federal Government its foreign interference laws could undermine freedom of the press and see journalists thrown in jail.
New laws announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in December would expand the definition of espionage to include possessing classified information, rather than the current definition which only outlaws communicating it.
The 15 companies — including the ABC, Fairfax and News Corp — have told the Government they cannot support the bill unless specific exemptions are made for journalists.
Their joint submission to a parliamentary committee claims existing security laws already undermine the media’s ability to keep Australians informed about national affairs.
The companies warn the proposed laws would criminalise all steps of news reporting and put journalists at a “significant risk” of jail time for possessing information that is in the public interest.
“The result is that fair scrutiny and public interest reporting is increasingly difficult and there is a real risk that journalists could go to jail for doing their jobs,” the submission said.
The laws were announced amid growing concerns within the intelligence community about the influence of foreign agents and political donations.
When they were announced, former attorney-general George Brandis said they represented the most significant overhaul of espionage and intelligence laws in decades.
“The core concept of espionage will not change but the breadth of behaviours defined will change,” Senator Brandis said.
The media companies argue the proposed laws are too broad and would have unintended consequences for journalists.
They warned a provision banning journalists from providing “support or resources” to a foreign intelligence could limit the ability of the press to report fairly.
“We bring to the attention of the committee a not dissimilar issue that the Wall Street Journal recently encountered where a journalist wrote an article about all sides of conflict in a region, including interviewing and reporting the views of the [separatist organisation] PKK,” the submission said.
“Because the reporter gave the PKK a voice at all, the article was regarded as terrorist propaganda.”
That reporter was subsequently sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Turkey, which the Wall Street Journal condemned as “unfounded” and “wildly inappropriate”.
The companies include the ABC, AAP, Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association, Bauer Media Group, Commercial Radio Australia, Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, Fairfax Media, Free TV Australia, HT&E, MEAA, News Corp Australia, NewsMediaWorks, SBS and The West Australian.
The laws will be debated in Federal Parliament in coming months.