The Federal Government has offered a major concession aimed at protecting journalists’ sources to get Labor’s support for plans to store phone and internet metadata for two years.
While the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General say they don’t think the measure is necessary, law enforcement agencies seeking to identify a source would be required to obtain a warrant to access a journalist’s metadata.
The journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, and crossbench senators says the compromise won’t protect journalist sources and it permits an outrageous attack on press freedom.
But the Attorney-General, George Brandis says the government is not going after journalists’ sources.
“The target and object of this legislation are terrorists, organised criminals and paedophiles. I don’t know any journalists who are terrorists, organised criminals or paedophiles,” Senator Brandis told reporters in Canberra.
“That is outrageous hyperbole,” he told ABC radio.
“At heart, all this legislation does is to mandate the continuation of the status quo. But, it also builds in new protections, new privacy protections that weren’t – aren’t part of the existing law.”
George Brandis says the Commonwealth Ombudsman has a new oversight power and the number of agencies which can access metadata without warrant has been reduced from around 80 to about 20, including ASIO, Police, State corruption bodies, the Australian Tax Office, ACCC and ASIC.
He says the government has agreed to a limited, but “not necessary” exemption to ensure the laws cleared parliament as soon as possible.
The Federal Opposition and crossbenchers are waiting to see the proposed amendments, but Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had written to the Prime Minister Tony Abbott over the weekend seeking greater protection for journalist sources.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon wants warrants that can be contested in court and says the Government should look closely at the system in the United States.
He’s told Sky News that whistle-blowers and contacts won’t come forward without safeguards, “it will have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers. It will have a chill effected in free speech.”
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam is against the Bill and wants better protections for all Australian citizens
“We believe agencies, if they are doing intrusive snooping into peoples’ private information should be required to get a warrant whether you’re a journalist or not,” Senator Ludlam has told the ABC.
He’s calling on Labor to reject the Government’s metadata plans. “I haven’t given up there. In a parliament as volatile as this, anything is possible.”
“I have never seen a bill brought in before where the Government couldn’t define what it will cost and who will pay. It is a surveillance tax that Australians are being asked to pay for to be spied on.”
There’s been concerted campaign from major media organisations and opposition parties against the provision which has the potential to affected press freedom, but Senator Brandis says “this never been about journalists.”
“This was about law enforcement and national security, but in order to put minds at rest that this could affect journalists, we have agreed to create a limited exemption in relation to them.”
However, the exemption is unlikely to protect bloggers.
“I wouldn’t regard bloggers as journalists,” said the Attorney-General.
“A journalist is for the purposes of this law, a person engaged in the profession of journalism and there is an interesting argument, of course, as to what at the margins a journalist is.”
Senator Brandis says the definition of journalism is resolvable by courts, “but for the purposes of this discussion a journalist is a person engaged in the profession of journalism.”
The Government is hoping to pass the legislation during this fortnight sitting of parliament.
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