Investigating a sustainable future for public interest journalism


Senate Press Freedom Inquiry

August 31, 2019

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Following Australian Federal Police raids on the home of journalist Annika Smethurst and of the ABC’s Sydney newsroom June 2019, the Senate’s Standing Committees on Environment and Communications commenced an inquiry into the impact of law enforcement powers on press freedom, with particular reference to the laws and protections for disclosing and reporting sensitive information.

PIJI’s submission to the Press Freedom Inquiry recommended that positive protections for freedom of speech and, freedom of the press be enshrined in Australian law. It also made a number of recommendations regarding shield laws, data retention, and whistleblower protections. PIJI’s Head of Research Gary Dickson and Expert Research Panel member Dr Margaret Simons also appeared before the inquiry committee.

A large number of the recommendations in PIJI’s submission were reflected in the inquiry’s Final Report.

PIJI’s Submission to the Press Freedom Inquiry made the following recommendations:

General recommendations:

  • Enshrine a positive protection for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Australian law.
  • Conduct a further inquiry, perhaps by the Australian Law Reform Commission, into the introduction of a unified Media Warrant scheme.

Shield laws

  • The federal government should lead an effort to harmonise shield laws across jurisdictions and adopt a broader functional definition of journalists.
  • Protection should be extended to all those involved in the newsgathering and publication process whose material or evidence may tend to reveal the identity of a source.

Data retention:

  • The definition of a journalist provided in the TIA Act should be changed to be consistent with the definition provided in the Evidence Act 1995.  Additional protection should be extended to other people whose metadata may reveal the identity of a source.
    • The definition a source in the TIA Act should be changed accordingly.
  • The identities of Public Interest Advocates should be public, and their appointment made in consultation with legal and media peak bodies.
  • Journalists and their employers should be informed when enforcement agencies seek access to their metadata and journalist information warrants should be contestable by the subject of the warrant and their employer.
    • Where that is not possible, allow the Public Interest Advocate to consult with the subject of the warrant and present their assessment of the potential harms of disclosure.
  • The public interest consideration should be expanded to consider the potential harm that could be done by the issuance of the warrant and the public interest in a free press.
  • Amend section 280 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 to prevent agencies from accessing retained data except those enforcement agencies listed in the TIA Act.

Whistleblower protections:

  • Simplified, consistent criteria for when whistleblowers may go public and be protected.
  • Reform of the system of carve-outs of particular types of information to reflect the principle that public interest disclosures should be protected in all circumstances except when it poses a genuine risk of harm.
  • Availability of a general public interest defence in criminal cases of alleged unauthorised disclosure.
  • Stronger legislative protection for journalists’ use of whistleblowing information for public interest purposes.
  • Establish a central whistleblower protection authority to support disclosers in both the public and private sectors.

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