MELBOURNE, Australia -- Proposals to tighten Australia's national security laws, announced against a backdrop of rising anxiety about Chinese interference in local politics, have sparked fears for press freedom in one of the most open democracies in the Asia-Pacific region.
Under new laws unveiled by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's coalition government in December, anyone who communicates or "deals with" sensitive government information without authorization would face up to 20 years in jail.
The National Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2017, which comes as part of a package of proposed laws clamping down on foreign interference and espionage, would criminalize the handling of any material vaguely defined as "harmful" to Australia's interests. Apart from national security concerns, those interests would include international relations, and relations between the federal government and the states and territories.
Although existing laws bar public servants from leaking classified information, the government's proposals ramp up penalties for offenders and are noteworthy for applying to potentially anyone, including a journalist, who handles sensitive material.
In a rare break from bipartisan consensus on national security, opposition leader Bill Shorten said Tuesday he would not support the legislation without the inclusion of better protection for journalists. Although the current bill contains a defense for journalists, it only applies where they engage in "fair and accurate reporting," a provision that critics say is overly subjective.
"If these laws don't adequately protect journalists doing their job, the government needs to fix its mistakes," Shorten, who leads the center-left Labor Party, told local media.
Announcing the package of reforms that also includes a ban on overseas donations and the establishment of a register of foreign lobbyists early December, Turnbull said, "We will not allow foreign states to use our freedoms to erode freedom; our open democracy to subvert democracy; our laws to undermine the rule of law."
In one of the most prominent cases of alleged foreign interference, opposition Senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign last year over his ties to Chinese Communist Party-linked businessman and political donor Huang Xiangmo.
But media organizations and advocacy groups have warned that the plans, described as a "grave threat to press freedom" by the country's main media union, risk criminalizing journalism itself.
We will not allow foreign states to use our freedoms to erode freedom; our open democracy to subvert democracy; our laws to undermine the rule of lawAustralian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
More than a dozen rival media companies last month told parliament that the laws would make "fair scrutiny and public interest reporting" increasingly difficult and potentially lead to journalists ending up in jail. Since then, international press advocacy organizations including the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists have expressed alarm over the proposals.
To many critics, the plans form part of a worrying trend in one of the region's rare liberal democracies, which is currently ranked 19th on Reporters Without Borders Press' World Press Freedom Index. The latest crackdown, which follows a flurry of reports of meddling by Beijing in the country's politics, media and universities, comes after the introduction of almost 60 national security-related laws post-9/11, many of which contained profound implications for media.
Johan Lidberg, the director of the masters in journalism program at Melbourne's Monash University, said that such laws have generally had bipartisan support and passed with little or no resistance or revision.
"Political leaders, they do ultimately have a great responsibility in keeping us safe, but they also have a responsibility in not fanning the flames when it's not necessary," Lidberg said. "I think we've seen that."
Lidberg said that Australia now had one of the most hostile environments for journalists among free nations. "It is actually getting to a point where it is one of the worst countries in the liberal democratic world," he said.
With the government needing the support of a divided and eclectic Senate to pass legislation, Attorney-General Christian Porter has signaled an openness to revising parts of the bill, which is due to pass the committee stage next month. At the same time, the country's top legal officer has played down the possibility of sweeping exemptions for journalists.
Lidberg said that recent history suggested that while the government's political opponents might secure some revisions, they were unlikely to stop the general thrust of the proposals.
"I'm not sure it's a change of course, but they'll pick up some political points from it," he said.