Journalists in the US and UK may be relatively safe from the government’s wrath when they report on surveillance leaks from the likes of Edward Snowden, but the Australian press may have to tread carefully before too long. Attorney General George Brandis has presented a bill that would make it a crime to reveal information that might “prejudice the effective conduct” of “special intelligence operations,” such as those from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). It also creates new charges specific to people who might become whistleblowers, such as contractors and the spies themselves.
There are frequently legitimate concerns that a leak might compromise an ongoing surveillance campaign. Snowden’s media friends frequently withhold info that they know would put people in jeopardy, for example. However, critics like the Australian Lawyers Alliance warn that the bill is far too broad. It’s not clear just what “effective conduct” or “intelligence operations” would involve – agencies like ASIO could cover up abuses of power by claiming that any activity is sensitive and needs to kept from the public eye. If there’s any consolation to free speech champions, it’s that the measure has to survive a parliamentary debate later this year before it has a chance of becoming law. There’s already stiff opposition from politicians, lawyers and advocacy groups, so the bill might be shot down before it jeopardizes civil liberties.