Leyonhjelm protects journalists

The federal government has agreed to critical amendments to national security laws that impose prison sentences for journalists and “outsiders” who disclose details of controlled operations conducted by the Australian Federal Police.

by Simon Benson. The Australian — 16th February, 2017.

The Australian has learned that Attorney-General George Brandis will quarantine journalists from the laws if publication does not prejudice an operation or endanger someone.

The agreement follows a push from Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm, who lobbied for changes for the protection of journalists during negotiations with the government over support for its ABCC legislation.

The move will bring AFP-­controlled operations in line with amendments to the disclosure of ASIO special intelligence oper­ations that offered immunity from prosecution if publication did not endanger officers or ­jeopardise an operation.

The amendments to section 35P of the ASIO Act made in 2015 also secured lesser penalties for journalists and outsiders than those of 10 years’ jail applying to “insiders” who leaked information that jeopardised operations or the lives of officers or informants.

The amendments were made after recommendations by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor.

However, those changes were not applied to AFP-controlled operations leaving inconsistencies in the laws as they applied to ASIO and the AFP.

Under the new amendments agreed to and being drafted by Senator Brandis, journalists will in future face no offence or penalty if their disclosure of AFP-controlled operations does not endanger anyone or prejudice a controlled operation. If their disclosure does endanger someone or prejudice an operation, the ­existing penalty of up to two years would apply.

And if the journalist knows or intends that the disclosure will endanger someone or prejudice an operation, the existing penalty of up to 10 years will apply. There will also be an exception for when information about controlled ­operations has already been released.

“Free speech, including a free media, is one of my highest priorities,” Senator Leyonhjelm told The Australian.
“I raised this problem in the context of my negotiations with the government over the ABCC.
“While no firm undertaking was given as to the outcome, the government did agree to consider the issue. I then wrote to the ­Attorney-General to formally request this legislation be amended along similar lines as the ASIO Act. The Attorney-General has agreed to my call.”

Section 35P had originally imposed up to five years’ imprisonment for disclosing information about a ‘‘special intelligence operation’’, or 10 years’ imprisonment if the disclosure endangered a person’s health or safety or prejudiced a ‘‘special intelligence operation’’. No distinction was made between disclosures by ASIO staff (insiders) and disclosures by journalists (outsiders).

Senator Leyonhjelm said the inconsistency arose when the INSLM was asked to review the ASIO Act but was not asked to concurrently review the AFP controlled operations.

‘‘As a result, journalists continued to be exposed to the same penalties as insiders,” he said.

Originally published at www.theaustralian.com.au.