Australian journalists could face prosecution and up to 10 years in prison for reporting Snowden-style revelations about special intelligence operations, according to a new bill proposed by Australia’s attorney general George Brandis.
Brandis presented the bill to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, in an “outrageous” expansion of spy powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).
It is worth mentioning here that the US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden was previously labelled a “traitor” by Brandis.
The proposed bill allows creation of a new offence punishable by a five-year jail term for “any person” who disclosed information about “special intelligence operations”.
The guilty would be liable for 10 years in prison if the disclosure would “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation.”
Brandis, however, shot down suggestions on Thursday morning that he was specifically targeting journalists who reported on surveillance leaks.
“No we’re not and I think there has been a little bit of erroneous commentary on that provision,” Brandis told the ABC Radio.
“It’s designed to plug a gap in the existing legislation. Under the existing legislation it’s a criminal offence for an officer of a national security agency to disclose intelligence material to a third party, but it’s not an offence for an officer to copy or wrongfully remove that material.
“In other words, communication with a third party is an element of the current offence but it seems to us that it should be wrong and it should be an offence to illicitly remove intelligence material from an agency. That’s all that’s about.”
But if Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesman Greg Barns is to be believed, a separate provision in the legislation could mean trouble for the Australian press.
Barns said: “I thought the Snowden clause [in the bill] was bad enough but this takes the Snowden clause and makes it a Snowden/Assange/Guardian/New York Times clause.”
“It’s an unprecedented clause which would capture the likes of Wikileaks, the Guardian, the New York Times, and any other media organisation that reports on such material,” he added.