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Oz Anti-Terror Law Threatens Freedom Of Expression

NOTE: The following is circulating this week inside Australian media and arts circles...

Press Freedom Alert:
Anti-Terror Legislation Threatens Freedom Of Expression

Threats to freedom of expression

The federal government is rushing through anti-terror laws that threaten freedom of expression.

These laws will radically alter the nature of public debate in this country. The laws draw on community's fear to create a state where government, police and judiciary will be able to act without accountability.

Members are asked to urgently email the government, the opposition and your local senators. A draft letter follows.

There are three grounds of concern:

Sedition too broad

Broadly defined sedition provisions within the proposed legislation will unreasonably erode freedom of speech and artistic expression. Any person or organisation could be charged with sedition without, as existing law requires, having urged force or violence.

Essentially a journalist who reports a story or publishes comment against the actions of the government, police or judiciary, could be charged under these sedition laws.

The same goes for a performer or filmmaker involved in a production that contains an anti-government polemic.

Current law already prohibits inciting crimes, membership and funding of terrorist organisations, and racial vilification. There is no need to stifle free speech. We call on the Government to urgently remove this provision from the legislation.

Jail for reporting the truth

Under the Bill, the Australian Federal Police can request for a person to be put on a preventative detention or control order. However, the legislation also places restrictions on reporting details about a person in preventative detention. A journalist who reveals that a person has been detained, the length of the detention or any other information relating to the order faces five years imprisonment.

It is an exaggerated penalty aimed to silence journalists - to intimidate them into submission and allow miscarriages of justice go unquestioned and inevitably unnoticed.

Coercion to reveal sources

The media's ability to do their job is further crippled by the police's increased power to obtain documents, which may relate to a terrorism offence.

Notice to produce provisions will allow the AFP to force journalists to hand over information, including the identity of confidential sources, if those documents will help in the investigation of a 'serious terrorism offence'.

The fine for refusing to comply is $3,300. To add injury to insult, a journalist who discloses that they've received a notice or the contents of it will incur an additional fine of $13,200.

Howard wants to pass this law as quickly as possible. The federal government has agreed to a two week Senate inquiry into the legislation, which is inadequate time considering the scope and gravity of what is being proposed.

The Alliance urges both houses of Parliament to take the time to consider the significant ramifications this legislation will have on public debate, freedom of expression and ultimately Australian democracy.

Draft letter to the Prime Minister/Senators

To email the Prime Minister, cut and paste the letter into the email facility at www.pm.gov.au/email.cfm For a full list of Senators' email addresses visit http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/senators/email.htm

Dear Sir/Madam,

As a member of Australia's media and entertainment industries [Change to identify yourself more accurately if necessary] I want to convey to you my deep concern regarding proposed anti-terror legislation.

I understand that it is your intention/the intention of the Prime Minister to pass these laws quickly due to an imminent terrorist threat. However, I urge to think long and hard about the ramifications this legislation will have on public debate, freedom of expression and ultimately Australian democracy.

Broadly defined sedition provisions will unreasonably erode freedom of speech and artistic expression. Any person or organisation could be charged with sedition without, as existing law requires, having urged force or violence. There are already laws in place that prohibit inciting crimes, membership and funding of terrorist organisations, and racial vilification. Such extreme sedition laws are not necessary and should be excluded from the legislation.

Authorities will be able to act without accountability. Harsh penalties for anyone who reports on people detained under preventative detention or control orders attempts to dissuade journalists and the families, lawyers and detained citizens from questioning possible miscarriages of justice.

Notice to produce powers for the Australian Federal Police will prevent journalists from doing their job. The AFP can force a journalist to hand over all documents, including the identity of a confidential source. With this threat, no one will speak to journalists and we can look forward to only one viewpoint being heard in our media - that of the government.

These are serious threats to our democracy. I urge you to think carefully about these issues and oppose the Bill as it stands.

Yours sincerely,

EBDS


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