The new legislation could see journalists jailed for reporting on related matters.
National Security Amendments Bill (No. 1), passed by Australia’s House of Representatives on Wednesday, says a person who discloses information relating to a special intelligence operation may face from five to 10 years behind bars.
Copying, transcribing or retaining records of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) is also outlawed, which is seen as a measure taken in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks of documents on the US’s National Security Agency.
Reporting on national security matters is being restricted simultaneously with more powers being granted to the country’s surveillance agency, with their power to monitor computers being expanded.
The government has justified the legislation as one boosting the country’s security in the wake of terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State extremist group (IS, formerly ISIS or ISIL).
“This is not, as has been wrongly suggested, about preventing the release of information that might simply embarrass the government of the day or expose it to criticism,” Justice Minister Michael Keenan said. “This is about providing a necessary and proportionate limitation on the communication of information that relates to the core business of intelligence agencies.”
One of the most ardent critics of the law is former intelligence whistleblower-turned-federal MP Andrew Wilkie.
“This is clamping down on free speech; this is clamping down on oversight of what the security agencies are up to,” he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Another opponent of the law is Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt, who believes intelligence agents could go unpunished for any possible misconduct as a result.
“If these laws pass, our security agencies could inadvertently kill an innocent bystander and journalists would not be able to report on it,” Bandt said.
However, there weren’t enough critics of the law in the lower house to prevent it from being passed. The legislation was supported by the main opposition Labor Party.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York based NGO, issued a statement saying it was worried by the new Australian legislation.
“This national security bill and other draft legislation raise grave concerns about the direction in which Australia is heading,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. “These bills would seriously hamper reporting in the public interest and we urge lawmakers to add the necessary safeguards to protect journalists and whistleblowers.”
The controversial law is one in a series of amendments to the country’s 1979 intelligence act, which are supposed to upgrade the country’s legislation in the face of the terrorist threat the government has been concerned about. Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier warned the amendments might shift “balance between freedom and security.”
In mid-September, Australia raised its terror alert to the second highest level in response to the activities of the extremist IS group in the in the Middle East.
Abbott warned there were at least 60 Australians fighting alongside terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, and at least 100 Australians who were supporting them. The PM also pointed to the fact that more than 20 of these foreign fighters have already returned to Australia and pose a threat to national security.
Islamic State spokesman issued a speech September 21, urging Muslims to launch attacks on civilians from US-led coalition countries, including Australia.
Among other counter-terrorism amendments that are pending parliamentary approval in Australia are a law that would require the country’s telecom companies to save metadata and provide it to government agencies, and also a law restricting travel to conflict zones in the Middle East.