Australian attorney general George Brandis has introduced an amendment to National Security Bill 2014, which he says will criminalise the removal of intelligence information from an agency but is written so broadly that it can potentially be used to punish journalists for publishing or reporting on intelligence information they discover or receive.
As the Guardian reports, according to the Bill’s explanatory memorandum, it criminalises “disclosures by any person, including participants in an SIO [special intelligence operation], other persons to whom information about an SIO has been communicated in an official capacity, and persons who are the recipients of an unauthorised disclosure of information, should they engage in any subsequent disclosure”.
This last clause effectively makes journalism — publishing and reporting on secret government documents — a crime.
The new Bill is in line with an ongoing crackdown on whistleblowing and subsequently on the journalism it enables, in the spirit of the US government’s persecution and ongoing investigation of WikiLeaks for publishing Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and State Department cables. In the US trial of Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, military prosecutors avowed that they would have tried Manning the same way had she passed the documents to the New York Times rather than WikiLeaks.
It also recalls the abusively broad language of the 1917 Espionage Act, a conviction of which requires merely “potential” harm — no proof of actual damage caused is needed. As Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg writes, reversing Manning’s 35-year prison sentence and conviction on multiple Espionage Act counts is America’s best shot at ending the government’s use of the law to imprison truthtellers.
The Espionage Act carries a ten-year prison term, and Australia’s new bill does as well, making it a crime to “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation.” This language hypes fears of national security damage without any factual backing. Snowden-released documents have been published, excerpted from and reported on for more than a year, and American officials have been unable to point to any tangible harm as a result.
Rather than learn from this lack of damage that these documents needn’t have been classified in the first place, Brandis is moving in the opposite direction, stoking fears in an effort to dissuade whistleblowing and, more broadly, Australian journalism.