One of the cornerstones of any healthy democracy must be free speech and freedom of the press.
But it seems not in Australia and not anymore. The Abbott Government is charting a course that’s hellbent on stifling both. And, if you are looking for a reason you need go no further than Julian Assange, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden.
They are almost certainly responsible for a set of leaked documents floating around that appear to suggest corruption involving Australia and some senior Asian politicians. I say appears to be, because the documents have been the subject of a Victorian Supreme Court gagging order so we don’t really know what’s in them.
But whatever it is the mere public mention of them was enough for the Indonesian President to demand yet another please explain from the Australian Government. And clearly, the Government has had enough of doing embarrassing explanations and apologies to the Indonesians.
Especially after the Snowden revelation that proved Australian spy agencies were listening in on the private telephone conversations of the Indonesian President and his wife.
So now, what the Abbott Government wants to do is well and truly shoot the messenger.
The Government has legislation before parliament that threatens Australian Security Intelligence Organisation leakers with 10 years’ imprisonment.
It also makes it an offence for journalists to report on information they receive from whistleblowers.
Edward Snowden’s lawyer has quite correctly labelled this as “draconian” and “chilling” because it will ‘criminalise a reporter talking to a source.”
Lawyer Jesselyn Radack said : “It’s the most draconian thing I’ve seen and it is completely antithetical to a free and open democratic society … I find it very disturbing that Australia’s entertaining this kind of legislation and that there hasn’t been a greater outcry, especially from the press.”
So what does this legislation actually do?
For a start you will be breaking the law if a person “discloses information … [that] relates to a special intelligence operation.”
And there are no exemptions, meaning it could apply to anyone including journalists, bloggers, lawyers and other members of the public. Anyone who discloses this kind of information faces tough new penalties of up to 10 years’ jail.
Ms Radack makes a crucial point in saying the new laws will essentially give ASIO, the Australian equivalent of the CIA, blanket immunity.
“This particular proposed legislation is drafted so broadly that almost anything could be labelled a special intelligence operation … the definitions are so broad and vague as to make anyone subject to this.”
Former US National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake, who fought the United States Government and won said these proposed laws would result in self-censorship.
“If this passes in its current form without huge changes, it is going to send a very chilling message,” Mr Drake said. “It will create a climate in which people will self-censor. They will opt not to reveal anything. They will opt not to associate with certain individuals. They will opt not to share certain information just on the risk that it might be designated secret or it might be designated something that might reveal an intelligence operation. Well in that kind of an environment guess what? It has its intended effect.”
Australia’s Federal Attorney-General Senator George Brandis has previously said that the new offences were not aimed at journalists.
“It’s not the purpose of this bill to place any constraints at all on freedom of discussion,” he said.
“We are a government that believes very strongly in freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”