Changes to security laws likely to have chilling effect, UN warns


UN special rapporteurs raise concerns over secrecy bill

Serious concerns have been raised over proposed changes to Australia’s official security laws, as previously documented on the CIVICUS Monitor. The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill - currently before parliament - contains prison sentences of up to 20 years for "dealing with" or publishing protected information that could cause harm to Australia's interests. The government has agued that it is necessary to counter the influence of foreign states, such as China and Russia.

On 20th February 2018, three UN special rapporteurs warned that changes to such laws in Australia could contravene its international human rights obligations and potentially have a chilling effect on investigative reporting. In a submission to a parliamentary committee reviewing proposed new secrecy laws, a group of UN special rapporteurs argued that the legislation could "disproportionately chill the work of media outlets and journalists [and] expose human rights campaigners, activists and academics to criminal charges".

Media organisations demand exemption for journalists

In March 2018, Australia’s top media organisations demanded a blanket public interest exemption for journalists in response to the amended foreign interference bill in a joint submission from media companies, including Guardian Australia, Fairfax Media, AAP, the ABC, News Corporation, Bauer Media and the West Australian

The media was concerned that the proposed bill could have a “chilling effect” on public interest journalism and affect decisions media organisations make every day, declaring that:

“We recommend that persons engaged in public interest reporting be exempted from offences in the bill, including to ‘deal’ with information…notwithstanding the amendments, it remains the case that journalists and their support staff continue to risk jail time for simply doing their jobs…this is why we believe that the way in which to deal with this appropriately is to provide an exemption for public interest reporting”.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests around Australia-ASEAN meeting

In March 2018, hundreds of protesters gathered in the centre of Sydney to condemn human rights violations in South-East Asia around a regional conference.

On 17 - 18th March, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hosted government leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Sydney at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.

Protestors from Australia's Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laos, Burmese and Filipino communities gathered and voiced their concerns on a range of issues, including human rights violations in Cambodia and the Philippines, as well as the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

Ahead of the meeting, Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch, stated:

“Australia’s failure to publicly raise human rights concerns at the summit would not only provide a propaganda coup to ASEAN’s most abusive leaders, it will embolden all the region’s leaders contemplating major crackdowns, jailing journalists or dismantling democratic institutions…the ASEAN summit shouldn’t just be an opportunity to dance with dictators, but a chance to publicly press them over horrific human rights abuses across the region”.
'Stolenwealth Games' protests by indigenous groups 

Indigenous groups mobilised around the Commonwealth Games held in Brisbane in April 2018. The organisers said that protests were designed to draw international attention to Australia’s colonial history and continuing social injustices against its First Nations peoples.

In one of the protests held on 4th April, the demonstrators blocked the Commonwealth Games Queen’s Baton Relay, wearing shirts and holding signs declaring “No Justice, No Games”. Game organisers were forced to drop one leg of the relay.

Protest leader Wayne Wharton told demonstrators that:

"We call this the 'Stolenwealth Games' because we deserve more…we deserve more and our kids deserve more than what we get…the whole goal of it (British settlement in Australia) was for the colonial powers to be able to suck the wealth out of our country…now our people are the most impoverished people in the whole of Australia".

The Aboriginal peoples have lived for tens of thousands of years before the British began colonising Australia in the late 1700s. Today, they are the most disadvantaged Australians, with higher rates of poverty, ill-health and cases of incarceration.

Protesters fined for shutting down coal port

Protesters shut down part of Adani's north Queensland coal port and as a result, were collectively fined almost $80,000 (60,000 USD) in March.Thirteen protesters from Frontline Action on Coal each received fines of up to $8,000 (6,000 USD) in the Bowen Magistrates Court, after they chained themselves to coal-loading equipment at the Abbot Point Port in January.

The fines were handed down to nine of the activists in the first-known case of such an obscure charge: intentionally or recklessly interfering with a port's operation. The protesters pled guilty to this and other charges of trespasings and contravening police directions.

Indian multinational Adani bought the Carmichael coal mine in northeastern Australia’s Galilee Basin in 2010. The project has faced constant opposition within Australia, with activists describing the campaign against the Carmichael mine as “the biggest environmental movement” in the country’s history.


Foreign donations bill could stifle civil society

In February 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor documented concerns raised by civil society groups over a bill on foreign donations that could suppress the voices of civil society organisations to speak up and contribute to public debate.

An inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in Parliament received over 200 submissions from a diverse range of charities, not-for-profit organisations, think tanks and legal experts. Most expressed concerns over the complex and burdensome nature of the proposed compliance framework, and the “chilling effect” it could have on advocacy by charities, in particular. The committee made 15 recommendations in its report in April, including calling on the government to narrow the definition of political expenditure and make it less likely to harm advocacy by civil society groups.

GetUp, a one million strong member-driven organisation, said the report acknowledged that the bill was unworkable. Its national director, Paul Oosting called for the government to withdraw the bill and organise broader consultations in the rewriting of it in the future.