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Australia 3 April 2006

Senate approves interception of communications bill that threatens press freedom

A bill passed by the Australian Senate on 30 March 2006 that allows the security forces to intercept phone calls, e-mail messages and SMS messages without proper legal controls threatens the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and, together with a new anti-terrorism law, jeopardises the independence of press coverage of terrorism and organised crime, Reporters Without Borders said today.

"Combating terrorism and organised crime is necessary but it should not endanger press freedom and free expression," the organisation said. "Some of the provisions of this law clearly undermine the protection of journalists’ communications and jeopardise the free coverage of the fight against terrorist groups. If this bill is approved by the House of Representatives, Australia will have one of the most repressive laws of its kind of any democracy."

When the bill comes before the House of Representatives for the last time, speaker David Hawker should intervene and seek the withdrawal of all the provisions that threaten press freedom, Reporters Without Borders added.

The Senate last week made no major changes to the wording of the bill already passed by the House of Representatives, which allows the authorities, including the secret services, to intercept the phone and email conversations of any person including journalists without a proper warrant. This poses a major threat to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.

As a result of amendments to the 2004 telecommunications act, the government already has access to telephone and electronic communications. A recent investigation by the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties found that nearly 80 per cent of orders for the interception of communications are not granted by proper judges.

According to the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (journalists’ union), any Australian could become a potential target as soon as the law takes effect. Irene Graham of the Electronic Frontiers Australia said the minimal changes which parliamentarians have made to the bill are not enough to dispel the concerns about its impact.

The reinforced Australian Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 adopted by parliament on 6 December 2005 provides for sentences of up to five years in prison for getting in contact with someone suspected of terrorism. Journalists investigating terrorist activities could be arrested by the police, especially if they publish the names of suspects.

Under the new law, reporters will not have the right to refuse to reveal their sources in terrorism cases, and the security forces will be able to raid news organisations in order to search for evidence in such cases. The law also envisages heavy prison sentences for anyone inciting violence or terrorist attacks against Australia.

The Australian Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 provides for prison sentences for any person inciting others to disobey Australian law. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser described it as rolling back several centuries of progress in human rights.

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