China-Australia relations

Australia’s spy chief says journalists are ‘ideal cover’ for foreign agents, cites Chinese attempt to recruit local reporter

Meanwhile, law and media organisations called for further amendments to espionage bill to protect journalism and innocent dealing with protected information

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 March, 2018, 7:36pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 March, 2018, 8:21pm

Australia’s intelligence agency has warned that media organisations should not be exempt from foreign interference laws because spy agencies would recruit journalists to exploit the loophole.

The director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Duncan Lewis, told a parliamentary committee on Friday that journalism provided an “ideal cover” for foreign spies to seek information that harmed Australia’s interests.

Asio’s evidence to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security comes after the Law Council and media organisations called for further amendments to the espionage bill to protect journalism and innocent dealing with protected information.

The espionage bill contains prison sentences of up to 20 years for dealing with or publishing protected information such as material that is harmful or likely to harm Australia’s interests.

The attorney general, Christian Porter, has already agreed to a host of changes to the espionage bill, including a defence for journalists who “reasonably believe” that dealing with or communicating information is in the public interest.

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In its submissions on the espionage bill, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance called for a complete exemption for the media.

News Limited’s head of government affairs, Georgia-Kate Schubert, warned that the bill still criminalised journalists for doing their jobs, arguing that support staff would not get the benefit of the defence because they could not assess the information’s public interest. She said that while news reporting would be protected, other formats such as opinion might not.

Lewis said Asio did not support exemptions because they would “fundamentally undermine the effectiveness of the legislation” and adversaries would “deliberately structure” their activities to exploit weaknesses.

Journalism provided the “ideal cover” for intelligence activities because both sought insights that were beyond public view, he said.

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The director general said journalists were frequently targeted by foreign agencies, and cited an article by the Australian Financial Review, which the journalist revealed a Chinese agent tried to recruit him to pass on information about stories that would reveal revelations about Chinese cyber hacking or industrial espionage.

The attorney general’s department assistant secretary, Anna Harmer, confirmed that there could be further amendments to the bill as a result of the deliberation of the committee.

The committee is also considering a separate bill in the foreign interference package that would require agents of foreign principals to declare themselves on a public register.