Australian Government Wants To Punish Whistleblowers And Journalists Who Leak Classified Documents With Up To 20 Years In Prison

from the maybe-they-haven't-heard-about-this-internet-thing dept

Whistleblowing stories have become something of a commonplace, as a stream of Techdirt posts attests. Some leaks offer massive revelations, like the documents released by Chelsea Manning, or Edward Snowden. Others are smaller scale, but expose unsuspected activities that powerful people were trying to keep in the shadows. Here, for example, is a recent leak published in the Guardian about big companies spying on law-abiding organizations that dare to disagree with them:

They shine a rare light on a habitually secretive industry in which large firms hire covert operatives to monitor and infiltrate political groups that object to their commercial activities. At a premium is advance information, tipping off the firms about protests that are being organised against them.

As the Snowden files proved, leaks about government activities can have particularly important knock-on consequences in terms of improving the balance of power between citizens and their supposed representatives. Perhaps because of that effect, the Australian government plans to bring in new laws that could see whistleblowers jailed for 20 years:

Australian government and intelligence whistleblowers -- and potentially even journalists -- may face up to 20 years in jail for disclosing classified information, under the most sweeping changes to the country's secrecy laws since they were introduced.

BuzzFeed reports the legislation will be extremely broad:

The new laws will apply to anyone, not just government officials. They could easily apply to journalists and organisations like WikiLeaks that "communicate" or "deal" with information, instead of just government officials. They will also close a longstanding gap around contractors working on behalf of government agencies, who will also be subject to the new offences.

The good news is:

Journalists will have a defence available to them if publication of information is considered to be in the public interest and is "in the person’s capacity as a journalist engaged in fair and accurate reporting".

But the bad news is the onus will be on journalists to show that they satisfy those conditions -- likely to be expensive and maybe even impossible. Despite that issue, it seems doubtful that the new law will have much impact on leaking. After all, most whistleblowers know and accept that they are taking a risk when they release sensitive material, but have already decided it is worth it. Manning and Snowden were not deterred by the threat of extremely serious penalties, and there will always be people brave enough to follow in their footsteps, whatever the consequences.

As far as news organizations are concerned, while it is true that Australian titles may think twice before publishing leaked government documents, there are plenty of other outlets around the world that won't. Even if other newspapers are reluctant to risk the wrath of the Australian government -- perhaps because they have offices and journalists in the country that would be vulnerable to retaliation -- it is easy to set up a dedicated site for the leaks, and then use social media to spread the word. That's essentially what WikiLeaks does, which is unlikely to take any notice of the new law either.

If the Australian government -- or indeed any government -- wants to reduce leaks it should place as much information as possible in the public domain, and seek to protect only the extremely sensitive stuff. Trying to enforce excessive and unnecessary secrecy with manifestly vindictive punishments simply undermines people's respect for the whole system, and probably provokes even more whistleblowers to leak.

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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 2:58am

    'Just in case' I'm sure

    It might just be me, but a government putting in place a threat of 20 years in jail for whistleblowers/leakers has me immediately wondering just what they are doing that is so bad and that they are apparently so desperate to hide.

    You don't threaten two decades for minor secrets, for a response like that I can't help but suspect that they are worried some really damning stuff might be made public and they're trying to prevent that from happening by scaring people off.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Daydream, 14 Dec 2017 @ 2:41pm

      Re: 'Just in case' I'm sure

      "All of our actions have been wholly legal under Australian law. We have consistently acted ethically, and in the interest of promoting the welfare of all people living in Australia, and we have been consistently fair and honest in dealing with foreign governments.

      In other news, any attempted independent audit or public scrutiny of our records will be met with a 20-year prison sentence."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 14 Dec 2017 @ 3:47am

    "fair and accurate" standard is biased

    If you can get 20 years for reporting "unfair" or "inaccurately" about the government, with the plaintiff being a government official, the reporting will end up biased.

    Any engineer will tell you that one-way rectification of noise will yield a biased result. You don't get unbiased without permitting negative values at all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 4:43am

    With that safe harbors excluding big companies and the constant attacks on freedoms it seems to me that the current Australian govt is trying to become a case study of authoritarianism before the US manages to get there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Champion, 14 Dec 2017 @ 5:47am

    join the dark side

    you all might as well bend over and become buttiknights

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 5:50am

    step 1, make rigid gun control laws, that massacre gave us the perfect excuse to do it!
    step 2, make anything "we" deed national security or classified illegal to report to the news, that release of classified information gave us the perfect excuse to do it!
    step 3, wait for something else bad to happen and make a law to protect things that removes more of their liberty.

    Don't feel bad Aussies, you are not the only cuntry in the world becoming a tyranny under the guise of being a "democracy" heh heh.

    People are so easy to trick.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 6:09am

    The issue isn't punishing people who leak classified information, the problem is what gets classified in the first place.

    If it is classified for national security purposes, it shouldn't be revealed. If it is classified to protect people for doing the wrong thing, it shouldn't be classified.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 9:17am


      How can you not figure out you just contradicted yourself and shot your own argument in its foot?

      REAL freedom of press means anything can be legally given to the press so that it may be exposed to the light of day, NO EXCEPTION, otherwise it's nothing more than a gateway to human corruption.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 6:35am

    Re: excessive and unnecessary secrecy

    The less sensitive stuff allows deductive analysis of the more sensitive stuff. Which is why they protect it all, and still throw out a bunch of disinformation. That is how intel works.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nuff Said, 14 Dec 2017 @ 10:13am

    Crooks shielding crooks, i.e., themselves.

    See subject header

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 11:20am

    So much for free(dom) speech.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 14 Dec 2017 @ 11:58am

    Never Mind Legal Restrictions ...

    ... Aussie media just lacks enthusiasm for reporting some uncomfortable things ...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 7:10pm

    With this bunch of fascists and corporate lackeys in power nothing surprises me anymore. If they could find some way to declare martial law and take over we would never get rid of them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 11:46pm


      Assuming that you are a Green or Labour voter from the timbre of your comment, I would like to point out that there is NO difference between the parties at this time in these areas. They have some minor differences in outlook in minor areas such as finance, health and education. But in terms of those things that matter to each party such as National Security, Whistleblowing, etc, they are in complete agreement.

      This can be seen by the various draconian legislation that has been passed in the last couple of years. All sides have supported such with only a handful actually objecting.

      The Soap Opera called Australian Parliament and Governance is all about fooling the citizens of Australia into thinking that any of the major parties care about the citizens and the well being of the country.

      There only care is who is seen as the good guy without ever having to reveal that they are all bad guys.

      At a state level, we have corruption in high places. Whether its Adani in Queensland or Safe Schools in Victoria, power infrastructure in South Australia or youth detention in Northern Territory or just the endemic corruption in New South Wales, the citizens are being blind-sided by those who are supposed to be responsible for the care and maintenance of the respective states.

      Australia is heading down into the pit of hell following in the footsteps of the USA ,Europe, China, Russia and all those other hellholes.

      There is a place called Hellhole and it is starting to appear to be a better place to live than many of the technologically advanced locations around the world.

      So keep up the "good" fight and keep believing in the lies and deceptions the party you follow promulgates (irrespective of left or right of politics).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Dec 2017 @ 12:11pm

    with the whole aim of covering their own asses for shitting on the very people they are voted into office to protect, the Australian people!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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