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“Truly terrifying”: what the foreign espionage bill means for not-for-profits

The NFP sector still concerned over a bipartisan review of the foreign espionage bill

Amendments to the government’s foreign espionage bill should have reduced the consequences for not-for-profits but organisations are still demanding changes.

The proposed bill, which included 60 recommended changes, the most since the Coalition government came to power in 2013, has been amended following grave concerns from the media and NGOs. However, the concerns remain.

Human Rights Watch submitted concerns to the bipartisan parliamentary committee who’s been charged with reviewing laws, saying: “Human rights activists and journalists advocating or reporting on politically sensitive arenas would be particularly exposed.

“Such standards could easily be used to deter important investigative reporting, since a report or activist will have to guess whether information could be deemed to endanger state security in some undefined way and self-censor.”

Amnesty International also expressed “grave concern” that the threat of prosecution is still rampant within the sector.

One of Australia’s Directors for Amnesty International, Claire O’Rourke, said: “Under this bill charities, including Amnesty, who hold the Australian government to account on its human rights record, could face criminal charges – that is not only outrageous, it’s downright terrifying.”

Labor has been hesitant to accept the legislation, following voiced concerns that the media and not-for-profits would be prosecuted for simply carrying out their job.

Originally, the bill would require lobbying groups who campaign “on behalf of foreign principles” to sign up to a public register. The scheme would also place criminal consequences on those who reported against the Australian government.

The Coalition is expected to pass the law later this month, pending the amendment changes, in the most significant overhaul of Australia’s security and foreign interference law in decades.

Key changes to the proposed amended bill would include a clarification and tightening of definitions on what constitutes a classified document and what is considered “prejudicing national security” to ensure it includes an element of harm.

At a press conference last December, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said charities with grounds in foreign countries should register, adding: “Being registered, I should say, should not be seen as any kind of taint and certainly not a crime. But if you do fail to disclose your ties, then you will be liable for a criminal offence.”

GetUp National Director, Paul Oosting, said the bill would discipline those exercising civil liberties, limit democratic rights and decrease government accountability.

Oosting said the bill would betray democracy, adding: “The bill represents a huge threat to our democracy. For example, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to protest against Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War could now, were this Bill to become legislation, face up to 20 years in prison.”

The changes follow specific recommendations from various groups, including the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights who submitted that the matters were “unworkably vague” and its impact on freedom of speech would be “inconsistent with democratic principles.”

“Although in practice a number of non-intelligence and non-military issues may have an impact on a country’s national security – such as food security, climate conditions, economic inequality and energy security, for example – this is no reason to criminalise holding or dealing with information about such matters.”

The committee said they understood there was a pressing need to strengthen the current espionage law and support the intent of the bill, adding: “”The committee recognises that the bill proposes to rewrite substantially Australia’s criminal laws relating to secrecy, espionage, foreign interference and sabotage.”

O’Rourke said the move was a “clear government overreach” and a “cynical exercise” of both political parties saving themselves from scrutiny, including charities.

O’Rourke added: “In addition to the committee’s recommendations released today, the bill must be further amended to provide robust exemptions for civil society, so we can continue to hold the government of the day accountable without fear of prosecution or imprisonment.

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