New Australian law targets leakers, not reporters

AP News
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Posted: Oct 29, 2014 10:38 PM

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A contentious new law that carries a prison term for anyone who reveals information about certain secret security operations was aimed at Edward Snowden-like leakers rather than investigative reporters, Australia's attorney-general said on Thursday.

George Brandis announced that he was adding a safeguard for journalists who might fall afoul of the tough new counterterrorism law by giving the attorney-general of the day a power of veto over any media prosecution.

"It's a very powerful, practical safeguard for a minister, who is a practicing politician, to assume personal responsibility for authorizing the prosecution of a journalist," Brandis said.

The most contentious section of a tranche of counterterrorism legislation passed Wednesday by the Senate carries a potential 10-year prison sentence for anyone who discloses information that relates to a "special intelligence operation." The attorney general decides which operations fit that perpetually secret category.

Journalists and rights groups have condemned the law as an attack on press freedom.

While the opposition voted for the legislation in Parliament, opposition leader Bill Shorten wrote to Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday outlining his concerns about the law's "potential to impinge up public interest reporting on national security issues."

Brandis said that section was primarily "intended for a Snowden-type situation," referring to the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor who leaked thousands of classified documents.

"There is no possibility ... that in our liberal democracy a journalist would ever be prosecuted for doing their job," Brandis said.

Brandis said he had told the chief federal prosecutor that no prosecution of a journalist under the law would be allowed without the attorney-general's consent. A journalist's sources would not have the same protection.

Australia lifted its terrorist threat level to the second highest level in September due to homegrown supporters of the Islamic State movement. The government is rapidly expanding the powers of its security and law enforcement agencies to cope with the increased danger.

The government introduced another contentious counterterrorism bill into Parliament on Thursday that would mandate that telecommunications companies store their clients' phone, email and Internet records for at least two years.

Critics argue the legislation it is an unwarranted breach of privacy.