Proposed laws could criminalise whistle-blowers and silence civil society

Expression

Media organisations and civil society organisations have criticised proposed changes to Australia’s official secrecy laws, announced in early December 2017, as far-reaching and a threat to democracy. The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 is currently before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security for review. The committee is due to report back on 23rd March 2018.

The concerns raised about the proposed changes include the following:

  • A government whistle-blower attempting to compile information about wrongdoing in the public interest could face criminal liability. 
  • Journalists receiving sensitive information they had not sought would automatically be in violation of the law. Journalists could face up to five years for being in possession of sensitive documents in the public interest and up to 15 years for communicating them.
  • The bill's definition of "classified information" as information that could "cause harm to Australia's interests" is a catch-all phrase that could prevent any investigative reporting on national security issues unless approved by the government. 

The Australian Human Rights Law Centre described the proposals as excessive, poorly designed and not taking into consideration the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recommendations. Dr Aruna Sathanapally, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“The cumulative effect of this Bill’s provisions is extraordinary. Government information should be public information except in select circumstances, but this Bill would flip that principle on its head by creating broad criminal offences with only narrow exceptions…[t]he scope of the offences is being extended to cover anyone handling or receiving government information and the penalties will be even harsher than they are now” .

On 7th February 2018, the government appeared to back down on the law, stating that it would revise the legislation to restrict the secrecy offences for which journalists can be prosecuted.

Association

Concerns have been also raised by civil society groups about a bill on foreign donations that could suppress the voices of civil society organisations to speak up and contribute to public debate. The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 is currently before the Australian Senate. The bill is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, who are scheduled to report back about the bill by 2nd March 2018.

The government’s proposed bill to ban foreign donations and tackle foreign interference in Australian politics appears to extend to “political campaigners” – including charities who conduct advocacy.

Under the bill, organisations that spend more than 13,500 AUD (10,570 USD) in a year on a “political purpose” will be required to undertake a range of complex, cumbersome and costly compliance requirements including registration, appointing a financial controller and disclosing a range of information including the political party membership of their board and senior staff. Political expenditure is broadly defined and includes the expression of “any views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election” whether or not it is during a campaign period. Charities would have to set up special accounts to keep revenue from non-citizens separate from other sources and ensure it was not spent on "political expenditure".

Critics argue that the law could have a "chilling effect" and force many civil society groups to divert resources away from advocacy to avoid the onerous administrative costs that such advocacy could incur. 

Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, declared that:

“Sadly, this legislation follows a line of attacks on charities speaking up in public about the work they do, whether it’s helping the homeless or defending the environment. It’s consistent with a broader, undemocratic trend of this Government trying to suppress the voices of charities. All governments find criticism inconvenient or uncomfortable, but that’s part and parcel of a good democracy”.

In October 2017, a report published by Civil Voices - an initiative by Pro Bono Australia in partnership with the Human Rights Law Centre - found that a “string of government policies and practices has created a culture in which charities in Australia are 'self-silencing' for fear of risking their financial security or attracting political retribution”. Sarah Maddison, report co-author and University of Melbourne associate professor, said that the main findings of the report were “fairly insidious", and that the advocacy sector speaking up for marginalised communities and assisting in policy making had been "effectively silenced both by the government and by itself".

Peaceful Assembly

As previously reported on the Monitor, more than 800 refugees and people seeking asylum have been held in Australian-run detention centres on Manus Island, under Papua New Guinea's (PNG) jurisdiction since 2013. According to Amnesty International, the Australian government has provided no viable or sustainable options for the refugees it forcibly transferred to PNG's control. The refugees are effectively forced to choose between returning to their own country or moving to a similarly abusive environment on Nauru.

On 31st October 2017, Australia withdrew all support services for the refugee detention centre, in an attempt to force the inhabitants out of the camp and move them to a planned new centre nearer to Lorengau town. The new centre had inadequate facilities and violence from the local community remains a constant threat

Refugees stayed and held peaceful protests calling for their safety and freedom, fearful that the move closer to town would expose them to greater risks of unchecked violence by the local population, as has been seen in the past. Contractors, under instructions from the Australian government, cut power, water, food and medical supplies. The refugees were left to fend for themselves, digging water wells and making night journeys to search for food. Those with urgent medical needs, including a person with a serious heart condition, had no access to medical assistance at the detention centre. 

On 23rd and 24th November 2017, PNG police and immigration officials raided the camp. Armed with sticks and knives, they yelled at refugees, threatened them with violence, dragged them out of the camp and onto buses. The refugees were taken to three newer, but poorly resourced centres, some parts of which were still under construction and had interrupted supplies of electricity and water.

Police also arrested journalist and human rights activist Behrouz Boochani, a recognised refugee on Manus, who has bravely exposed the world to the abuse being experienced by all men in the detention camp on Manus. He was subsequently released on the same day.

In November 2017, Boochani won a media award from Amnesty International Australia for his reporting on conditions on Manus.