Journalists must be protected from prosecution as part of a much-needed overhaul of Australia’s 2018 espionage law, according to a group of academics pushing for reform.
Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh of the University of Queensland said the harsh penalties under the law – including life imprisonment – were having a “crippling” effect on public service journalism.
“Although no journalist has been prosecuted in the past three years, the threat of imprisonment for a national security offense is looming and is of enormous concern to news companies, journalists and their sources,” she declared.
âThe laws criminalize a very wide range of conduct that involves ‘processing’ information for the purpose of passing it on to a ‘foreign principal’.
âJournalists communicate with ‘top foreigners’ whenever they publish a story around the world. “
Dr Ananian-Welsh said there should be a “journalism-based crime exemption” to recognize the democratic function journalists play in protecting public interest reporting.
“This is how official secrets laws protect journalists and the espionage law should have the same,” she said.
Dr Ananian-Welsh leads the UQ Law School’s Press Freedom Policy Papers series, a project to lay the groundwork for widespread reform of laws covering espionage, whistleblowing and freedom of expression as they affect the media.
Each guidance document builds on parallel academic research papers that are also due to be released this year.
Australia’s Espionage and Press Freedom Policy Paper says the breadth and complexity of Australia’s 2018 espionage law sets it apart from comparable countries such as the UK, which has only two basic espionage offenses, and New Zealand, which has one.
“Australia replaced its two previous espionage laws with a complex set of 27 new offenses,” said Dr Ananian-Welsh.
âThe complexity and breadth of the laws is a problem in itself. Legal experts find it difficult to unpack and understand offenses.
âJournalists, even with the help of an in-house lawyer, face a daunting task of assessing whether they themselves, or a source, might cross the line of crime if they are discussing sensitive issues or international relations. with a source, in particular a source having access to confidential information. “
Dr Ananian-Welsh worked closely with UQ journalism professor and former foreign correspondent Professor Peter Greste, who was sued in Egypt seven years ago for “aiding terrorism” in his reporting for Al Jazeera and spent 13 months in a Cairo prison.
As part of the Press Freedom Policy Papers series, Dr Ananian-Welsh and Professor Greste will jointly publish research on whistleblower legislation as it relates to journalism this year.
The couple previously co-authored two submissions to government press freedom inquiries (available here and here) and posted a video on the subject as part of Dr. Ananian-Welsh’s 2020 Paul Bourke lecture.
Dr Ananian-Welsh said the press freedom policy documents were born out of the belief that conduct in the context of legitimate and good faith journalism should not be criminalized.
Espionage and Press Freedom in Australia presents the full list of recommendations.