New security laws will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, says civil society


Security laws passed despite concerns

On 28th June 2018 the Australian Senate passed the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, serious concerns had been raised over the proposed changes to Australia’s official security laws including broad definitions within the text that threatened to impose on journalists, charities, protesters and possibly academics new duties to register and disclose foreign contacts and potential liabilities for failure to do so.

In 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.

It is reported that some amendments were made to the bills after criticism from civil society groups. Among them was the expansion of protections for media employees who breach secrecy provisions, sparing them from prosecution if they can show a reasonable belief their work was in the public interest. Charities were also exempted from having to register under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme law.

However, civil society groups remain concerned about the impact of the law on fundamental freedoms.

The Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) criticised the laws, warning that the measures “unreasonably and disproportionately violate the fundamental universal human rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression". The ALHR said the laws, will have a “severely chilling effect upon academic research, free speech, and particularly constitutionally-protected free political speech.”

Claire O’Rourke, External Affairs Director at Amnesty International Australia, said:

“In passing these draconian laws, both sides of Australian politics have thrown our rights and freedoms under the bus….unbelievably, the Australian Parliament has today made it a crime for charities to expose human rights violations, and to communicate with the United Nations about those violations…we are dismayed that Australia, a country that claims to cherish its freedoms, has taken this leap towards authoritarianism.”

Peaceful assembly

Thousands protest against Australia's refugee detention policy

On 21st July 2018, thousands of people marched across major Australian cities calling for an end to the country's offshore detention of asylum seekers. Protesters took to the streets to mark the fifth anniversary since the policy's reintroduction 2013. The government significantly toughened its stance in 2013, signing deals with the Pacific nations and declaring that anyone arriving by boat had "no chance" of being settled in Australia. Banners read: "Five years too long, evacuate Manus and Nauru". Joint rallies were held in the cities of Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth.

Currently anyone who tries to enter Australia by sea is sent to detention camps on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island or to Nauru in the Pacific for processing. Human rights groups consider Australia’s offshore processing regime deliberately abusive and have called on the government to immediately transfer all asylum seekers and refugees to Australia or another safe country. Around 1,600 people are believed to be still on Nauru and Manus.

Rally organiser Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said:

"The policy that was introduced in 2013, to expel people - the 'Fortress Australia' policy that they [the government] put in place - that has to go…so we fight to close the detention centres on Manus and Nauru, but we fight in that process to bring them here."

An Iranian man died in an apparent suicide on Nauru in June 2018. This was the fifth death on Nauru since Australia's offshore detention ramped up in July 2013, rights groups say, while seven have died on Manus during the same period. More than a hundred have been transferred to the US as part of a deal made between the two governments under the administration of former US President Barack Obama.

Four women charged after protests in Victoria

Four women were charged in Melbourne on 11th July 2018 with “wilful trespass” after refusing to move from the Department of Home Affairs office during a protest against the detention of refugees on Manus, Nauru and Christmas islands. While 40-odd protesters left the lobby of Customs House on La Trobe Street after calling for Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to be sacked, the remaining protesters continued their vigil before police intervened. The group were released later, on summons.

Concerns about new protest regulations in New South Wales 

New protest regulations in the state of New South Wales, which came into effect on 1st July have been called "a fundamental attack on democracy". The new regulations under the Crown Management Act would give low-ranking officials broad powers to disperse or ban protests, meetings, rallies and gatherings on any state-owned land, which amounts to about half of all land in New South Wales.

Northern Rivers academic and activist, Aidan Ricketts, said:

"It's creating this arbitrary power to disperse any crowds whatsoever — not just protesting but simply meeting and discussing issues even…it just says you're there at the sufferance of any low-ranking official who can disperse you and tell you to go."