New legislation a threat for activists and media

| June 30, 2014

Ag-gag is the term used for a variety of anti-whistleblower laws in the US. Emmanuel Giuffre from the animal protection institute Voiceless says that proposed law reforms across Australia are an attack on freedom of information and free speech.

Ag-gag is gaining traction in NSW and SA, hidden within proposed law reform in a bid to stifle freedom of information, media reporting and investigations into factory farming.

In an alarming turn of events, South Australia has reintroduced the Surveillance Devices Bill, a proposed law which is consistent with US style “ag-gag” legislation. The Bill seeks to criminalise the release of information derived from unlawful surveillance to the public, including a maximum penalty of $75,000 for a corporation and $15,000 or imprisonment for 3 years for individuals who use, communicate or publish material collected through the use of surveillance devices.

This Bill could have a significant impact on how media organisations and news services report on all matters of public interest, including the farming of animals for food in Australia.

Similarly, the NSW Government has called for public comment on proposed reforms to strengthen existing biosecurity laws in the state. The NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson MP and Federal Agriculture Minister, Senator Barnaby Joyce announced at a Nationals conference this month that they would use the proposed reforms to introduce laws to target animal activists that use undercover surveillance to record the operations of intensive commercial facilities and publish information derived from such surveillance to the public.

Senator Joyce also announced plans to co-ordinate similar moves across the other states and territories, news that emerged shortly after the Victorian Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh confirmed that tough new legislation targeting animal activists would be introduced before the next Victorian state election to better “protect” farmers.

This is a coordinated attack on freedom of information and free speech. The devil will be in the detail of these proposed laws, but it is evident that legislation is being used to gag animal activists, the media and anyone else who asks, ‘Just what is happening on Australian factory farms?’

Voiceless is not alone in voicing opposition to these proposed laws with many organisations also raising their own concerns about how new legislation could impact consumer advocacy, workers’ rights, freedom of the press and human rights.

Voiceless is contacting a number of advocates and stakeholders who will be negatively affected by these proposed laws. This is about more than simply an attack on animal activists. In practice, these laws could see journalists or advocates jailed for doing their job.

This is an illiberal response which is inconsistent with the Australian public’s rights to free speech, freedom of information and freedom of the press.