Protests from media outlets, activists, politicians and lawyers have prompted the government to water down parts of its recent foreign interference bill, which could have meant jail sentences for journalists who even receive classified information. While Attorney-General Christian Porter has said the government doesn’t intend to jail journalists for receiving information, he’s ruled out exempting the media.

Porter has said there will be a “public interest” defence available for journalists, but the bill (as it’s drafted) is still broad, and the question of who would decide what is in the public interest is fraught, especially when it comes to national security matters. The ABC kowtowed to authorities last week in handing back the documents it obtained from a discarded filing cabinet — some of which, it said, were not published in the interests of national security. 

There are countless examples of stories that may either never have come to be, or could have resulted in the reporters and their sources being jailed, if reported under the new bill. The draft legislation, as it stands, would catch out any journalist (or their source) for reporting any information that could prejudice Australia’s interests, or advantage another country, which experts say is an incredibly broad consideration. 

We’ve taken a brief look back at some of the more significant stories from the last few years that could have been argued to not be in the public interest and landed the reporters (and their sources) in jail.

Huawei and the NBN

In November 2013, Australian Financial Review journalists Christopher Joye and John Kerin’s report into Huawei’s battle to access Australia’s NBN relied on comments and information from numerous unnamed spooks and covered much wider implications international relationships and international security:

The clandestine story behind Huawei’s relentless multi-year battle to access ­Australia’s NBN, which The Australian Financial Review can tell for the first time, is just a localised skirmish in a far wider and more complex conflict between the worlds two most powerful nations, China and the United States. Understanding this is crucial to unlocking Huawei’s experience in Australia.

Operation Neath

The Australian‘s coverage of Operation Neath in 2009 — an Australian Federal Police counter-terrorism raid — has been dissected many times (including by Crikey). Cameron Stewart and The Australian negotiated with the police on when to publish, but reporting the information from a Victoria Police source could be defined by authorities, if he were prosecuted, as prejudicing Australia’s national interests.

Stewart won a Gold Quill for his report, and he wrote about how he got the story for The Australian:

I was also instantly worried for (Victoria Police source) Artz. He had chosen to arrange our tip-off meeting via police email. Neither of us was concerned about this fact at the time, because we had no concept of the gravity of Operation Neath. I knew from my previous reporting on terror-related issues that the story Artz had told me was not big enough to trigger a witch-hunt. But the belated discovery of the deadly Holsworthy plot made an investigation likely and had caught us both out. Had he known that this was a far bigger story I’m sure Artz would have never left an obvious email trail.

Nauru Files

A lot of the reporting around Border Force, border protection policy and offshore detention could fall under the huge umbrella of the proposed bill. This would include Guardian Australia‘s cache of incident reports leaked from Nauru in 2016, which they dubbed the “Nauru Files”:

More than 2,000 leaked incident reports from Australia’s detention camp for asylum seekers on the remote Pacific island of Nauru — totalling more than 8,000 pages — are published by the Guardian today. The Nauru files set out as never before the assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and living conditions endured by asylum seekers held by the Australian government, painting a picture of routine dysfunction and cruelty.

Afghanistan unlawful killings

Last year the ABC reported on secret defence documents — some marked “Australian eyes only” — that revealed unlawful killings by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, as well as concern about the culture of the special services.

Hundreds of pages of secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC give an unprecedented insight into the clandestine operations of Australia’s elite special forces in Afghanistan, including incidents of troops killing unarmed men and children. The ABC can reveal that some of the cases detailed in the documents are being investigated as possible unlawful killings.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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