New ASIO laws an 'outrageous attack on press freedom': Union

Journo union condemns new national security laws

The union representing journalists has described new national security laws passed last night by the Senate as an "outrageous attack on press freedom".

"The bill muzzles the media from doing its job," Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) federal secretary Christopher Warren said in a statement.

"The bill criminalises legitimate journalist reporting of matters in the public interest. It overturns the public’s right to know. It persecutes and prosecutes whistleblowers and journalists who are dealing with whistleblowers.

"It imposes ludicrous penalties of up to 10 years jail on journalists. It imposes outrageous surveillance on journalists and the computer networks of their media employers. It treats every Australian as a threat and denies their rights of access to information and freedom of expression."

The laws remove many restrictions on ASIO's ability to hack into computer networks, including the use of third party systems to access target computers.

It also introduces penalties for disclosing 'special intelligence operations'. An MEAA statement said the union was particularly concerned about the treatment of offences relating to special intelligence operations.

Disclosing information about such operations could result in jail terms of up to 10 years and may result in whistleblowers and journalists getting facing prison sentences, the union said.

"It is clear that rather than seeing Edward Snowden as a legitimate whistleblower who exposed massive illegal misuse of metadata, this legislation ensures that anyone seeking to also expose wrongdoing by Australia’s spy agencies will be muzzled, unable to get their story out to the wider community despite the obvious public interest, and will be punished with a jail term of up to 10 years," Warren said.

Disclosure of a special interest operation would have to be 'reckless' and prosecution of a journalist would need to considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions to be in the public interest.

"MEAA notes that ASIO has been able to inoculate itself from scrutiny so successfully that any wrongdoing by an ASIO officer could result in two years’ jail but if a journalist reported the officer’s abuse of power, the journalist faces five times that penalty," the union's statement said.

"The outcome of this legislation for journalists is two-fold: a muzzle has been applied to the media that will have a chilling effect on legitimate journalism while at the same time journalists will be compelled to resort to the tools and techniques of espionage to protect their news sources and stories from being interfered with by the government and its agencies," Warren said.

"Those two outcomes are not healthy in any democracy. But they are even more galling when the government responsible claims to be implementing these in order to protect our freedoms and our way of life."