Watching the Attorney-General struggle to deal with the issue of ASIO’s Special Intelligence Operations — and the fate of those who publish information about them — has been revealing. As George Brandis has sought to provide reassurance that the new laws are not targeted at journalists (as if that makes a skerrick of difference), he has increasingly emphasised the real point of the laws: they are designed to jail whistleblowers.

Thus, last night on the ABC, Brandis was at pains to explain that journalists reporting what had already been revealed would be in no danger: the laws are in fact targeted at those who make the initial revelation — future Edward Snowdens, to use the figure Brandis has repeatedly invoked (and smeared).

Brandis is already engaged in a US-style war on whistleblowers, having authorised the raid of Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery and the former ASIS officer who blew the whistle on ASIS’s extraordinary spying on the East Timorese government; now he is seeking to prosecute both of them. As his remarks last night make clear, Brandis may not particularly want to lock journalists up for a decade, but with whistleblowers, it’s a different story. His goal is deterrence, to prevent future whistleblowers from revealing wrongdoing within intelligence agencies that might embarrass future governments just as the Abbott government has been embarrassed by revelations of ASIS bugging the East Timorese cabinet for no reason other than to benefit an Australian resources company.

The problem is that there is no practical distinction between journalists and whistleblowers. Silencing whistleblowers is ultimately about preventing accountability and transparency for governments, because without whistleblowers the ability of the media to hold governments to account is significantly diminished. In seeking to jail whistleblowers rather than journalists, Brandis will ensure journalists are unable to do their jobs.

For the same reason, data retention is a direct and explicit threat to journalism and holding governments to account, because it significantly increases the risk that whistleblowers and the journalists and politicians to whom they turn will be identified by security agencies and governments. Data retention must never be permitted, and the laws relating to SIOs need a public interest exception.

Peter Fray

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