Australian journalists were not wary enough about protecting their information and sources from government, according to media identities speaking at New News.
Paul Farrell, a reporter with Guardian Australia, said journalists were being negligent if they were not naturally suspicious about the reach of government.
He said the capacity for surveillance by agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was “breathtaking” and that journalists had to wake up and protect what privacy they have left in light of new laws passed two weeks ago.
“It’s astonishing that I still see journalists receive confidential tips via email,” he said. “The recklessness and negligence of that is beyond belief. As soon as you email a source you are exposing them to prosecution.”
Mr Farrell said journalists needed a good working knowledge of encryption.
“No encryption means your source is at risk. You need to be very, very paranoid. We always have machines on hand that have never had any contact with the Internet.”
Margaret Simons, the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University, said all journalists were becoming increasingly thoughtful and nervous about what they did.
The discussion about protection of sources and Internet spying coincided the introduction of the new laws and increased penalties under the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill, which was passed September 25.
The recently introduced “Section 35P” created two offences relating to “the unauthorised disclosure of information relating to a Special Intelligence Operation (SIO)”. As a result, the reporting of such an operation could land journalists and whistleblowers in jail for anywhere between five and 10 years.
A first “basic” offence carries a five-year maximum jail term, while a “reckless” offence carries maximum imprisonment of 10 years. The term “reckless” applies to cases where “a person endangers, or intends to endanger, the effectiveness of the SIO or the health or safety of those involved.”
The Abbott Government has said the laws were necessary to protect intelligence operations by deterring “unauthorised disclosures”.
Suelette Dreyfus, a research fellow in the computing and information systems department at the University of Melbourne, said it was important for everyone to understand what was at stake as a consequence of the tighter laws.
“The average person needs to realise that what has just passed is only the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come,” she told the audience at the Wheeler Centre. “I used to think Julian Assange was paranoid about security in the 1990s. I look back and realise now just how right he really was. That was the golden era of the Internet: it was full of promise and any attempts to control freedom were bucked against. Not anymore.”
Mr Farrell said the new disclosure offences would create a “chilling effect” for sources.
“Whistleblowers are usually people who see horrifying things on a daily basis. They feel powerless . . . that their system is broken and they’re not doing enough. The information they’re publishing are things that need to be looked at, but this [legislation] will make them second-guess themselves.”
Andrea Carson, a lecturer in media and politics, said intimidation levels had increased because of the news laws. She said journalists needed an institution behind them for protection.
“Investigative journalists now need a pretty deep pocket — in other words, legal power — because cases are being brought to court. They also need emotional support, as many are put under a lot of scrutiny, especially from other journalists.”
Dr Dreyfus said that the new national security laws did not, in fact, represent society’s views.
“We analysed a couple of different ways in understanding how the public feels about whistleblowing. The first thing we found is that half of the Australian population we interviewed said there’s too much secrecy in organisations. The online community [response] was much higher with 85 per cent.”
Dr Dreyfus said a follow-up question had been whether people believed whistleblowers should be punished or supported, even if they were revealing information from inside organisations.
“We found 81 per cent supported the whistleblowers. That’s huge. It really sets a contrast to the level of security afforded to the whistleblowers in our society.”
Dr Carson said the long-term impact of Wikileaks was a reminder of what society condemned and what it did not want to become.
“To put it in perspective, the number of people who died by terrorist attacks in America this year is less than the amount of people who die in bathtubs. Why should 23 million people have their privacy breached for the actions of the few?
“One of the reasons we live in Australia is because we promote liberty and a democratic society. Our liberties are now being taken away. If the Fourth Estate can’t stand up to these powers, who can?”