This week, parliament will debate changes to national security laws intended to keep Australians safe. But parliament shouldn’t rush to adopt laws that infringe on basic rights and that risk criminalising the legitimate actions of whistle-blowers, journalists and human rights activists.
Under proposed amendments to national security laws, anyone who discloses information related to a “special intelligence operation” could face up to five years in prison. The penalty increases to 10 years if the information endangers lives. The legislation is vague as to what exactly could be considered a “special intelligence operation.” But in a post-Snowden and Wikileaks world, we know that simply cloaking something as “special” or “classified” doesn’t mean it should automatically be free from scrutiny.
Punishing those who leak security information or publish it can be problematic because it suppresses information that may be vital for the exercise and protection of human rights, accountability and democratic governance. Some of the most significant revelations of human rights violations come from disclosures of once-secret information relating to the misconduct of security agencies. If this amendment passes, lawyers, journalists and activists could be prosecuted simply for doing their jobs of holding the government to account.
The offence even seems to apply to users of social media who share leaked information by reposting it on Facebook or Twitter. As it stands, the offence covers “recipients of an unauthorised disclosure of information” who “engage in any subsequent disclosure.” Intention to cause harm is not required and it doesn’t matter if another person read, heard, or viewed the information in question – just the act of making it available to others would be sufficient.