Free speech needs protection in national security legislation
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Free speech needs protection in national security legislation

In a time when the most powerful leader of the democratic world uses accusations of "fake news" to bludgeon media when they report stories he doesn't like, and when many people worldwide place less value in democracy, Australia might appear sheltered from these malaises.

Last year, Australians overwhelmingly took part in a non-compulsory postal survey that ended with a majority endorsing same-sex marriage, and laws changed soon after (albeit following years of bitter debate and much government spending). Australia also has compulsory voting in elections, which are free and fair, and there are plenty of people engaged in its politics. What could be wrong?

The country should exit its summer break with no illusions about the safety and resilience of its basic freedoms. In the dying weeks of 2017, a new swath of law changes were tabled, carrying a few alarming clauses that should send jitters through anyone who values the freedom and openness of their community.

Proposed changes to Australia's national security laws could pose a threat to the freedom of the press - a cornerstone of democracy - by seeing journalists jailed for 20 years if they communicate or deal with protected government information.

While the Coalition government says the new laws are meant to counter the influence of foreign states such as China and Russia, and argues journalists would be protected from prosecution, in truth media would be barely shielded from penalties. They would have to prove their reporting was in the public interest, something that would be subject to interpretation by a court. Journalists would also lose protection if they were found not to be "engaged in fair and accurate reporting". Unfortunately, what is considered "fair and accurate" is often in the eye of the beholder.

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Journalists commonly receive information from government whistleblowers that is in the public interest to report, for their readers and viewers to make better informed decisions and arguments about the direction they want for their country. Criminalise this method of scrutiny, and these laws could thwart reporting that may expose government actions people want to know about.

A blanket exception for media from these laws would shield it best. New Attorney-General Christian Porter has instead considered giving himself veto power over the prosecution of journalists. This might form a check to potentially overzealous authorities or their ministers, but it would concentrate authority too much in one office and do little to stop a chill on public interest reporting. Mr Porter's interpretation of the law may be shaped by respect for freedom of the press, but whether the same can be said of his successors is unknown.

The changes in these laws may appear small, but they are potent, and dangerous because they are incremental. Not only journalists, but the public they inform, stand to lose if Parliament passes them unchanged.

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