A powerful group of United Nations officials have called on the Australian government to reconsider proposed secrecy laws, warning that they risk chilling the work of journalists, deterring whistleblowers, and exposing journalists and human rights activists to prosecution.
The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has announced a broad package of reforms aimed at curbing foreign interference from countries including China and Russia.
But the proposal also includes major reforms to Australia's secrecy laws, which appear to be aimed at curbing whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and organisations such as WikiLeaks.
Under the proposed new regime, two existing secrecy offences will be repealed entirely and replaced by several new offences inserted into the Commonwealth Criminal Code.
While a seven-year jail sentence is the maximum available under the existing laws, this will be increased to 20 years.
The new laws will apply to anyone, not just government officials. They could easily apply to journalists and organisations, including WikiLeaks, that “communicate” or “deal” with information. They will also close a longstanding gap around contractors working on behalf of government agencies, who will also be subject to the new offences.
David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, and Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, sent a joint communique to the Australian government on Friday warning that the bill risked violating a number of rights guaranteed under international law.
"We are gravely concerned that the Bill would impose draconian criminal penalties on expression and access to information that is central to public debate and accountability in a democratic society," they wrote.
They said the bill would "not only penalise disclosures of government information in the public interest, but also expose journalists, activists, and academics that merely receive such information to criminal liability".
"Such extensive criminal prohibitions, coupled with the threat of lengthy custodial sentences and the lack of meaningful defenses, are likely to have a disproportionate chilling effect on the work of journalists, whistleblowers, and activists seeking to hold the government accountable to the public," they said.
The rapporteurs' analysis adds to a growing body of domestic and international voices that have levelled criticism at the government for the breadth of offences put forward.
The bill introduced by the government is currently before the powerful joint parliamentary intelligence committee. The committee is composed primarily of government and Labor MPs and senators. Its deliberations are critical, and it generally produces bipartisan reports, signalling that both major parties will support the bill, thus guaranteeing its passage.
The Australian government announced just over a week ago it would amend some parts of the proposed laws, in a move welcomed by Australia's journalists' union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
"This is a clear vindication of what MEAA has been saying for many years: government can and should be doing more to support the media industry, which is being hurt by the impact of digital technology and draconian laws that muzzle legitimate reporting in the public interest," CEO Paul Murphy said.
"The committee has clearly acknowledged the vital role a healthy media industry plays in a strong democracy. The public broadcasters have a crucial role to play – they must be given the funding to ensure they can fulfil their duty under their charters. Commercial media is being adversely affected by the loss of revenue arising from digital disruption."