Politics

Espionage invoice nonetheless threatens many regardless of defences for media, Regulation Council says | Australia information

The Coalition’s espionage bill still threatens whistleblowers, bloggers, lawyers and people who innocently receive national security information, the Law Council of Australia has warned.

The Law Council president, Morry Bailes, will tell the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security at a hearing on Friday that further changes are needed so people who do not intend harm to national security are not punished.

The lawyers’ peak body joins the media union and the country’s top media organisations in continuing to lobby for the bill to be dropped or significantly amended despite the Turnbull government agreeing to a host of changes to protect public interest reporting.

The espionage 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.

On Friday Bailes will tell the committee that the Law Council welcomes changes including a broader defence for public interest journalism and tightening of the classes of information protected by the bill.

But in a copy of his opening statement, seen by Guardian Australia, Bailes warns that a person who supplies information to a journalist would still have no defence.

“The Law Council remains opposed to the notion that the public interest exception should only be available to journalists or the news media,” he says, noting it is unclear if an individual blogger will be protected.

Bailes also warns that amendments are required to ensure the innocent receipt of information – for example in a filing cabinet – is not captured by the offence provisions.

He warns the link in the bill between the defendant’s intention and the harms of dealing with protected information “requires further precision”.

“Amendments are still required to the secrecy offences to broaden the defences and exceptions for legal advice, legal proceedings and the dealing with information, not simply the communication of it,” he says.

Bailes argues the definition of “national security” in the bill still goes beyond security and defence to include impacts on Australia’s political and economic relations with other countries.

The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said the government had tried to fix the espionage laws “after admitting to stuffing them up the first time – but there are still serious flaws”.

“Labor won’t accept laws that put journalists in jail for doing their job – or punish innocent Australians who have done nothing wrong,” he said. “The government needs to do better.”

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance has called for a complete exemption for media, without the requirement to prove a journalist “reasonably believes” that dealing with or communicating information is in the public interest.

In a joint submission from media companies, including Guardian Australia, Fairfax Media, AAP, the ABC, News Corporation, Bauer Media and the West Australian, the media industry said amendments do not go far enough.

Any journalist who positively reports about a foreign intelligence agency could still end up in jail, they warned the committee examining the bill on Tuesday.

Dreyfus said the Coalition “has not properly addressed the community’s concerns about the potential for journalists to be jailed just for doing their job and news organisations have rightly continued to express serious concerns”.

Other witnesses to appear on Friday include the Human Rights Law Centre, the joint media organisations, the attorney general’s department and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

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