That journalists could be jailed for investigating malfeasance by Australian forces in conflict zones and the overly broad terms used to described proscribed organisations that might capture human rights campaigners are just two of a range of issues identified to the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in its hearings today on the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014.

At hearings conducted in Canberra, the committee heard from a range of government agencies and NGOs, as well as former independent national security legislation monitor Bret Walker SC. Much of the bill implements recommendations made by Walker in his final report earlier this year, but he is also on record as calling for preventive detention powers — which would be extended by the bill, rather than lapsing in 2015 — to be completely abolished and for provisions relating to control orders to be removed and applied in other contexts.

In his opening remarks, Walker expressed concerns about the bill defining the proscribed organisations to which it would apply as bodies planning or carrying out acts “prejudicial to the security, defence or international relations of Australia”, arguing that security and defence were sufficient and that “international relations” opened the potential use of the bill to activity that might be worthwhile but potentially injurious to Australia’s international relations — like activism or boycotts aimed at the human rights record of another country. Walker also raised concerns about the nature of the controversial mechanism for automatically making it an offence to go to a designated zone with defences available for certain activities, arguing that the current wording that a person had entered a designated zone “solely” for the purposes covered by the exemptions lowered the threshold for the prosecution to secure a conviction.

Walker also criticised the entire concept of sunset clauses, arguing that they had no effect other than to cause a piece of legislation to “muscle its way onto the government business agenda” when the sunset point neared. “They have no entrenching effect,” he noted, pointing out that parliaments could decide to repeal sunsetted provisions earlier than intended, and that the concept of “emergency laws” of temporary duration should have little or no role in counter-terrorism.

Earlier in the day, committee deputy chair Anthony Byrne raised the issue of whether journalists could be jailed under the bill for undertaking reportage from a designated area if they had gone undercover or wished to keep their identities or sources secret, preventing them from claiming the defence of undertaking public interest journalism, with witnesses confirming that journalists could potentially be jailed if unwilling to reveal their role.

Peter Fray

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