Press Freedom Inquiry ‘Security-focussed’

Press freedom report calls for reform and transparency.

A parliamentary inquiry into the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press has recommended measures to improve public interest protections and transparency.

Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Andrew Hastie, said the Committee acknowledges the role of a free press, and that the investigation or prosecution of journalists and media organisations can affect the perception of the freedom of the press in Australia.

Our report recommends that the role of Australia’s Public Interest Advocates be expanded to consider a broader range of warrant applications that may affect journalists and media organisations in instances of unauthorised disclosure of information,” Mr Hastie said.

The report also includes recommendations for additional transparency in warrant applications, and recommendations related to the Public Interest Disclosure scheme which allows public officials who suspect wrongdoing to report their concerns. These reforms are aimed at ensuring that appropriate avenues exist for Commonwealth officials to raise their concerns before it is necessary to approach external parties.

The issues related to law enforcement, intelligence powers and press freedoms are complex, and this inquiry has allowed the Committee to examine a range of matters in great detail,” Mr Hastie said.

This is an evolving area of law, and the Committee welcomes recent steps taken by Government to bolster the decision-making process when journalists and media organisations are involved in the investigation and prosecution of unauthorised disclosure of information.”

Issuing of Warrants

Coalition MPs on the committee, though concerned about a trend towards “judicialisation” of the warrant process, said:

This inquiry, correctly in our view, makes a concession to media organisations and journalists recommending that warrants sought by law enforcement agencies, issued in matters relating to journalists and media organisations, should be issued by superior court judges. This is a very significant safeguard for journalists and media organisations.
However, they said the situation was different where the issuing authority was the Attorney-General:
At present, there is potentially a major political sanction against an Attorney-General issuing a warrant under those provisions. That sanction is that any Attorney-General who issues such a warrant, if it is discovered, runs the risk that the media will apply an unprecedented level of criticism to them. The Attorney-General is also accountable to Parliament and risks parliamentary sanction.
Security Focus Constrains Recommendations
Labor members said it was deeply concerning that the law in Australia does not adequately protect freedom of the press or the public’s right to know. And yet the recommendations in the report do not go far enough.
Looking beyond this inquiry, it is also important to recognise that the challenges to public interest journalism are much broader than those within the purview of this Committee.
This Committee is constituted under the Intelligence Services Act 2001, and accordingly its focus is national security, laws in relation to national security, and the agencies which constitute the “National Intelligence Community”.
Labor members are conscious that the breadth of the issues raised in the submissions to, and the public discussion around, this inquiry extends well beyond that provided for in either the Intelligence Services Act or the terms of reference in the Attorney General’s referral to this Committee.
Even before the Attorney-General’s referral, Labor did not believe that this Committee was the best forum for conducting a comprehensive inquiry into freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. While the Committee’s report will make a valuable contribution to the public debate, and implementation of the Committee’s recommendations will result in meaningful improvements to the law, Labor members remain of that view.