Journalism academics and the union have backed source protection for bloggers and other citizen journalists, rejecting Coalition concerns that Labor’s shield laws legislation will weaken the policy objective they’re designed to serve.

But Dr Johan Lidberg from Monash University’s School of Journalism still sees problems in the new legislation, saying the laws don’t go far enough in offering legal protection for journalists and their sources.

Shadow attorney general George Brandis criticised the new laws in an opinion piece published in The Australian yesterday. Striking out at the Greens for amending the bill to extend journalistic protection for bloggers and tweeters, Brandis suggests that instead of a win for journalists and their sources, the new laws are likely to weaken the very policy objective they purport to serve.

“What he’s [Brandis] claiming is essentially that the amendments make the laws less likely to be used,” Dr Lidberg told Crikey. “I can’t see that happening.”

Lidberg says the media landscape has changed: “It would have been very awkward to exclude people who blog or use social media from the shield laws.”

Jonathan Este from journalists’ union the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance believes debate on the definitions of journalism are pointless. “What is important when considering protection for citizen journalists is not who is a journalist, but the type of information that is published by the writer: if it’s in the public interest, then protection should be extended to the author of that.”

But Lidberg says there are problems with the legislation. Like similar laws in NSW, the federal legislation as it stands enables the presiding judge to make the final call on whether or not to grant the journalist in court the right to use the shield law.

“So, if you get a judge who is not sympathetic to the important role of journalism and the media there is a chance they may not act in the journalist’s favour,” he said.

Instead, Lidberg argues an amendment to bring the laws up to best international practice should be considered. Best international practice, like that practiced in Sweden, enables judges to revoke a journalist’s right to source protection only under extraordinary circumstances, for example in a situation when not revealing sources would threaten national security or constitute treason.

The next step is to try and encourage states and territories to enact similar legislation, Este told Crikey. Currently NSW is the only state with shield laws in place.

Este points out in examples such as the Harvey and McManus case, or the case of Sydney Morning Herald reporters being issued subpoenas by the NSW Crime Commission last week, that the federal shield laws would not protect the journalists.

And current state and federal shield laws don’t extend to journalists dealing with super-judicial bodies like the Office of Police Integrity or the NSW Crime Commission. Este explains that in these situations journalists would not be protected and may still be required to answer questions about sources.

Lidberg says laws should address the symptom rather than the cause. That symptom has its roots in Section 70 of the federal Crimes Act which states public servants are not allowed to disseminate or disclose information by their employers to journalists, and if they do, they could face jail.

“Section 70 of the federal Crimes Act, and its counterparts in state laws, is an outdated and draconian piece of legislation that inhibits the flow of information that should be in the public domain and shoots the messenger,” Lidberg told Crikey.

“The law is an international embarrassment.”

Peter Fray

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