SYDNEY — The Australian Government has said fears over proposed security laws are unfounded, and will not affect journalists or regular Australians.
A bill was presented to the Australian Parliament on Wednesday to expand the powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
Under the proposed bill, journalists could face prosecution or even jail time if they reported on spy operations or Edward Snowden-style leaks, The Guardian reported.
Controversy surrounds the creation of a new offence for "any person" who discloses information related to "special intelligence operations," which is punishable with five years jail. If any person is to "endanger the health or safety of any person, or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation" he or she may face 10 years in prison.
Australia's Attorney General George Brandis shot down concerns on Thursday morning, telling ABC Radio, "I think we should be very wary of making wild claims".
"People need to understand that ASIO and the national security agencies operate under a very, very comprehensive regime of safeguards and scrutiny and oversight — and that's not going to change," he said.
Brandis dismissed reports that journalists would be targeted, and innocent Australians would be open to surveillance. Instead the measures have been introduced to improve the security agency's ability to predict and prevent terrorist attacks, he said. "I think there has been a little bit of erroneous commentary on that provision."
Brandis added that the new bill's focus is instead on those who work for Australian security agencies, and to "plug a gap" in the existing legislation.
"There are provisions for the protection of whistleblowers elsewhere in commonwealth legislation, which are unaffected by this proposal," he said. "Under the existing legislation, it's a criminal offence for an officer of a national security agency to disclose intelligence material to a third party, but it's not an offence for an officer to copy or wrongfully remove that material."
David Irvine, head of ASIO, said the measures will also be used to track Australians coming back from Syria, after fighting with rebel forces.
"In the current operating environment ... there is a need to know what Australians are up to, particularly if they are going to come home and commit terrorists acts," he told reporters in Canberra. "It has been very difficult to collect information on them."
But Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesperson Greg Barns told The Guardian that the new measures are troubling.
“I thought the Snowden clause was bad enough, but this takes the Snowden clause and makes it a Snowden/Assange/Guardian/New York Times clause,” he said. “It’s an unprecedented clause, which would capture the likes of Wikileaks, the Guardian, the New York Times and any other media organisation that reports on such material.”
The Australian Associated Press reported that Greens Sen. Scott Ludlam will push for a Senate inquiry into the changes. "This government is in enough trouble without picking a fight with the Internet," he said.
On Wednesday, a United Nations report entitled "The right to privacy in the digital age" was released by the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. "Governmental mass surveillance [is] emerging as a dangerous habit rather than an exceptional measure," the report said.
Pillay said she agreed with the rights of governments to protect citizens from terrorism, but that some officials are taking it too far.
“Some governments have reportedly threatened to ban services of telecommunications companies unless given direct access to telecommunication traffic. Others have tapped fiber optic cables … for surveillance purposes, or required companies systematically to disclose bulk information on customers and employees. Some have used communication surveillance to target political opposition or dissidents," she said.
Pillay added that states are obliged to balance security needs with the privacy needs of their people. “The onus is on the State to demonstrate that such interference is neither arbitrary nor unlawful,” she said.
Tags: ASIO, AUSTRALIA, AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT, EDWARD SNOWDEN, JULIAN ASSANGE, LEAKED DOCUMENTS, SPY, SPY AGENCY, US & World, WIKILEAKS, WORLD