Australia’s surveillance laws endanger press freedom


A Deakin University study involving investigative journalists and media lawyers has renewed fears for press freedom in Australia in the wake of tough new surveillance laws.

The research, Securing Australian Journalism from Surveillance, explores the impact of the Data Retention Act (2015), the Assistance and Access Act (2018), the International Production Orders Act (2020), and the Identify and Disrupt Act (2021) on the operation of a free press in Australia.

Project lead Dr Diarmaid Harkin of Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences said the study findings demonstrated the new legislation had cowed some whistle-blowers into silence.

There was clear evidence the powers discouraged some sources from coming forward, he said, and Australians now lived in a climate of heightened government surveillance.

“Our government and law enforcement agencies have more electronic surveillance capabilities than other comparable Five Eyes partner-nations to access the information of private citizens,” Dr Harkin said.

“Journalists are an important group who need to consider these laws, but these powers can also be used on lawyers, activists, politicians, and political opponents as well as other individuals.”

The report, undertaken with fellow Deakin academic Dr Monique Mann, includes interviews with 19 investigative journalists and two media lawyers.

Journalists interviewed for the study were adamant the laws did not impact the stories they chose to cover but said they had lost contact with some sources who were now too afraid to share what they know.

Dr Harkin said journalists worried about how their contacts were being surveilled and feared they would lose more sources if greater protections were not afforded to the media.

“These surveillance powers, which among other things allow for greater retention and access to people’s private metadata, have been used by law enforcement and government agencies to compromise journalist’s private communications, at times without the proper authorisation,” Dr Harkin said

“Metadata retention laws were particularly considered to have had a major effect on whistle-blowers. There was also a strong belief among those we spoke to that this environment of increased surveillance came at a time of heightened antagonism toward the media by the former federal government.”

The research makes recommendations on behalf of journalists to protect reporters from surveillance.

These come at a critical time of significant law reform that is underway following the Richardson review on the legal framework governing telecommunications surveillance in Australia.

Suggested reforms include the requirement of a judicial warrant by authorities to access metadata in any circumstance – not just for journalists.

Journalists were also critical of the current journalist information warrant authorities must get before accessing their data.

Many said they had no trust in the procedures used to obtain the warrant or the protections it afforded journalists.

/University Public Release. View in full here.