Dutton directive gives journalists more breathing space, but not whistleblowers



Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton appears to have backed down from his previous hardline position on AFP raids and press freedom.
AAP/Sam Mooy

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

In light of the ministerial direction issued to the Australian Federal Police by the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on August 9, it would be a spectacular contradiction in policy if the Australian Federal Police’s current pursuit of journalists were to end in prosecutions.




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The direction stated in part:

I expect the AFP to take into account the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society and to consider broader public interest implications before undertaking investigative action involving a professional journalist or news media organisation in relation to unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.

So much for the uncompromising stance of Dutton and the then acting commissioner of the AFP, Neil Gaughan, that the law was the law, and if journalists broke it they could expect to be prosecuted like anyone else.

The political sensitivity of this climb-down may be gauged from the fact the direction was issued at 4pm on a Friday.

A combination of early deadlines for the Saturday papers, the incapacity of television to pull together a comprehensive story in time for the evening bulletins, and the dead air of the weekend make late Friday the preferred time of the week to drop bad or embarrassing news.

Dutton’s announcement was bereft of explanation. However, events since the AFP raids on the home of a News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst, and on the ABC headquarters on June 5 and 6 respectively give a hint of the likely reason.

First, there was the international condemnation across the Western world of the repressive nature of the police raids, expressed in a tone of disbelief that this could be happening in a mature democracy.

Then there was the unified response from the heads of Australia’s three main news organisations, the ABC, News Corporation and Nine. Their message, delivered in a nationally televised broadcast from the National Press Club on June 26, was that a government obsessed with secrecy had now gone so far as to criminalise journalism.

There was also the statement by the Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter, that he was “seriously disinclined” to prosecute journalists for doing journalism. His consent is needed for any such prosecution.

Faced with international condemnation, pressure from the media and the potential for a major row in Cabinet between Dutton and Porter, the government then tried to take the sting out of the situation by setting up an inquiry into press freedom.

Bizarrely, this is being conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), the very body that has waved through most of these repressive laws in the first place.

The inquiry has generated a body of strongly worded submissions arguing for the balance between press freedom and government secrecy to be struck in a way that is more consistent with democratic principles.

It begins its public hearings this week.

So Dutton’s ministerial direction may be seen as having two objectives: heading off a potentially damaging split in cabinet, and accomplishing a preemptive buckle before the parliamentary inquiry calls him and outgoing AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, to give an account of themselves.

Of course, as far as anyone knows, the AFP investigations are still on foot. Already officers have removed thousands of records from the ABC, accumulated travel data concerning two ABC journalists and requested their fingerprints, as well as turning Annika Smethurst’s home upside-down.

So the government’s intimidatory tactics have had a good run already, even if prosecutions do not follow.

There is nothing to stop the police from completing these investigations and providing a brief of evidence for Porter. However, given his stated position, allied with the new political dynamics created by the reaction to the raids and Dutton’s directive, it seems unlikely prosecutions will follow.

While the ministerial direction represents a genuflection in the direction of press freedom, it provides nothing by way of protection for whistleblowers.

The direction says it

does not constrain investigation by the AFP of unauthorised disclosure of material made or obtained by a current or former Commonwealth officer.

So it seems the pursuit of whistleblowers – the people who provide journalists with leaked information – can continue unabated. They still have only a demonstrably useless law – the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 – offering a fig leaf of protection.

The present prosecutions of Richard Boyle (Tax Office) and David McBride (Defence) attest to this.

The last paragraph of Dutton’s directive deals with the process by which government departments or agencies refer leaks to the AFP, and the AFP then assesses for investigative possibilities.




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Media raids raise questions about AFP’s power and weak protection for journalists and whistleblowers


This entire reference and assessment process has been shot through with politics, either at the departmental end or the police end, or both.

That is why the ABC and Smethurst leaks – neither of which had much to do with national security but were acutely embarrassing to the government – were subject to police action.

By contrast, a leak to The Australian about the alleged security effects of the medevac legislation, which the head of ASIO Duncan Lewis publicly complained was a real threat to national security, was not subject to police action because it played into the hands of the government’s scare campaign about people-smuggling.

Dutton’s direction says:

I expect the AFP to strengthen its guidance and processes about the types and level of information required from a Government department or agency when they are referring to an unauthorised disclosure. Referring departments or agencies will need to provide a harm statement indicating the extent to which the disclosure is expected to significantly compromise Australia’s national security.

If the direction is to be taken as meaning only leaks significantly compromising national security are to be referred to the police, then there may be a larger safe space within which journalists can operate.

But the hunt for whistleblowers will go on.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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It’s a new era for Australia’s whistleblowers – in the private sector



Whistleblowing will always take some type of toll, but it need not be career suicide.
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Dennis Gentilin, Macquarie University

As strange as it might sound, whistleblowers in Australia have reason to rejoice – so long as they are in the private sector.

Thanks to new laws that came into effect this month, private-sector whistleblowers have a range of new protections. This includes, in certain prescribed circumstances, the prospect of being compensated if they experience adverse outcomes after taking their concerns to the the media.

The timing is ironic, given last month Australia’s federal police launched raids on journalists and media outlets who received and published disclosures from public-sector whistleblowers. If identified and prosecuted, those whistleblowers could face lengthy prison sentences.




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In fact, private-sector whistleblowers now have, for the first time, greater protection than their public-sector counterparts.

What the new laws do

The catalyst for the new laws was a parliamentary inquiry into whistleblower protection established in November 2016. The inquiry’s final report, published in September 2017, made a total of 35 recommendations. Though 19 were rejected by the federal government, the outcome is still a vast improvement on the previous provisions.

For the first time, federal legislation now defines, in broad terms, the following.

Who qualifies as a whistleblower. The list of those protected for making disclosures goes beyond company officers and employees. It includes suppliers, employees of suppliers, and relatives and dependants of officers, employees and suppliers.

What is a disclosable matter. Whistleblower protection isn’t just for disclosing illegal conduct. It also covers “misconduct” or an “improper state of affairs” (not including concerns about personal work-related grievances).

Who to make a disclosure to. To qualify for protection, whistleblowers no longer need to raise their concern through a “formal” whistleblowing channel. They can go to any officer or senior manager in a company, or to an auditor, or to regulators. Disclosures to journalists and members of parliament also qualify for protection in certain prescribed circumstances.

What constitutes detriment. Detrimental outcomes for whistleblowing are not constrained to dismissal or demotion. They include discrimination, harassment or intimidation, harm or injury (including psychological), and damage to property, financial position or reputation.




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Above all, the legislation empowers the courts to order payment of compensation to whistleblowers who experience detriment. To avoid any liability, organisations must demonstrate they have taken steps to protect whistleblowers.

Promoting protection

The prevailing view is that whistleblowing is a sure path to career suicide. The stories that loom large in the public consciousness are those of whistleblowers who, despite acting in the best interests of the organisations that employ them, are ostracised and abandoned.

Whistleblowing, to be sure, is an arduous undertaking that will always take some type of toll. But this prevailing narrative of significant adverse consequences is misleading.

I say this for two reasons.

The first is personal. In 2004, I was one of the whistleblowers in a major governance failure at the National Australia Bank. It led to four colleagues being jailed and senior executives resigning. Despite this, I went on to spend a further 12 years at the bank. The bank endorsed a book I subsequently wrote about the origins of ethical failure. Chairman Ken Henry even wrote the foreword.

The second, more importantly, is the evidence. The world-leading Whistling While They Work Research Project at Griffith University surveyed close to 18,000 people working in public and private sector organisations across Australia and New Zealand. Of the 4,382 respondents who reported wrongdoing in their organisations, 21% said they were treated well by both management and colleagues, compared to less than 13% who said they were treated badly.



There is no denying whistleblowers sometimes pay a significant price, but these results show positive outcomes are possible.

Beyond ‘tick-the-box’ compliance

The new whistleblowing laws aim to increase those positive outcomes and provide avenues for compensation when whistleblowers aren’t treated well.

The challenge for organisations now is making this happen.

A first step is to put in place a whistleblower policy. The legislation requires that all publicly listed and large proprietary companies have one. Among other things, the policy must detail:

  • the internal channels through which whistleblowers can make disclosures
  • how thorough, independent investigations will be conducted
  • how the interests of the whistleblower will be protected.

As important as formal whistleblowing policies and programs are, however, they are not sufficient. Any “tick-the-box” compliance approach will inevitably fail to promote positive outcomes for whistleblowers without an ethical culture.




Read more:
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Organisations must work hard to create environments that support those who raise concerns, and where leaders listen and take action. This will reduce potential liabilities for organisations and help shift the prevailing narrative surrounding whistleblowing.

We are now in a new era for private sector whistleblowers. Of course, the true litmus test will be when the laws are tested in the courts. But my hope is not just that the courts richly (and deservedly) compensate whistleblowers who suffer detriment. I hope the legislation is a catalyst for organisations to create environments that support whistleblowers, recognising the tremendous value they bring to any workplace.The Conversation

Dennis Gentilin, Adjunct Fellow, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New foreign interference laws will compound risks to whistleblowers and journalists


File 20171206 31528 cwi4t0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Increasingly, the language of ‘national security’ is invoked to protect a government’s broader interests.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Keiran Hardy, Griffith University

The Turnbull government has announced a crackdown on foreign interference in Australian politics and national security. Proposed laws include a ban on foreign political donations, new criminal offences, and a transparency register for those acting on behalf of foreign governments or organisations.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull carefully emphasised that the proposals are not focused on China’s influence in Australia. But, as the Lowy Institute’s Euan Graham put it, there’s an “800-pound panda” in the room.

The proposed criminal offences will significantly expand the scope of existing laws against espionage and treason. This will make it easier to prosecute spies and other foreign nationals who seek undue influence over Australian business or politics.

However, the new laws pose risks to whistleblowers and journalists. They suggest the concept of “national security” is continually expanding.


Further reading: Ban on foreign political donations is both too broad and too narrow, and won’t fix our system


Espionage

The Criminal Code currently sets out an offence of espionage that is punishable by 25 years’ imprisonment.

The main offence applies where someone communicates or makes available information that concerns Australia’s security or defence. The person must intend to prejudice Australia’s security or defence, or advantage another country’s security or defence. Under the proposed changes, this offence will attract a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Where a person recklessly endangers Australia’s security or defence, this will be punishable by the current penalty.

The new espionage offences will apply to possessing or receiving information, in addition to communicating it. They will protect a broader range of information, including unclassified material.

Other new offences, punishable by 15 years’ imprisonment, will target preparation for espionage and the theft of trade secrets.

Foreign interference

Proposed offences for foreign interference will target conduct not ordinarily considered to be espionage or treason.

Currently, the federal offence of treason describes very rare and serious conduct, such as assassinating or capturing the Queen or prime minister.

These new offences will target covert, deceptive or undisclosed conduct that is directed, funded, supervised or undertaken on behalf of a foreign interest. The penalties will range between ten and 20 years’ imprisonment.

To constitute foreign interference, the conduct must be intended to:

  • serve the intelligence purposes of a foreign actor

  • harm Australia’s national security

  • influence the exercise or performance of a democratic or political right, or

  • influence a government or political process.

Other new offences will target the support or funding of foreign intelligence agencies. These will be similar to existing crimes for supporting or funding terrorist organisations.

Are the new offences needed?

The changes will make it easier to prosecute foreign nationals who intentionally interfere with Australia’s business, political or foreign policy interests.

Where such influence cannot strictly be described as impacting on security or defence, successful prosecution under the existing espionage or treason offences is very difficult.

The government’s other justifications are much weaker. The current espionage offences already extend beyond the communication of information to making, obtaining or copying sensitive records. The Crimes Act includes offences that are triggered when an Australian public official discloses official secrets or other information obtained in the course of their employment.

What are the risks?

The proposed offences will target some conduct that should clearly be a serious criminal offence, such as intentionally supporting a foreign intelligence agency.

However, the proposed laws go well beyond such clear cases to target a broad and vague range of conduct affecting Australian interests. This includes possessing unclassified information and any deceptive or undisclosed conduct that influences government processes.

Most importantly, the proposed changes pose risks to whistleblowers and Australian media organisations. These risks were compounded in 2014 by changes to national security legislation in response to the threat of foreign fighters.


Further reading: National security bills compound existing threats to media freedom


A journalist could face serious penalties under the proposed espionage offences for receiving information leaked by a government official or intelligence whistleblower, before they even decide to publish that information.

It seems the information need not even be classified for the penalties to apply, provided making the information available would benefit a foreign country or organisation.

The government needs to ensure that journalists publishing sensitive information in the public interest will not face criminal prosecution for espionage or other federal criminal offences. This should be done by drafting legal protections for journalists who act in a professional capacity in the public interest.

Assurances from Attorney-General George Brandis that journalists will not be prosecuted for doing their job are not enough.

The proposed laws should be viewed not only as a response to increasing Chinese influence in Australia, but also as symptomatic of a post-Snowden crackdown, in which all potentially embarrassing information about government is closely protected.

Similar debates about expanded espionage offences and press freedom have already taken place in the UK. These debates confirm that “national security” is no longer simply about physical threats like terrorism or traditional forms of spying.

The ConversationIncreasingly, the language of national security is invoked to protect a government’s broader interests – political, business and economic.

Keiran Hardy, Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Member, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.