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Calls for tougher journalist protections

Australia’s attorney-general has promised more hurdles for authorities to get warrants against journalists, but the media union says reporters shouldn’t face the threat of prosecution and jail in the first place.

The government has accepted all recommendations directed towards it from parliament’s inquiry into press freedom conducted by the powerful committee on intelligence and security.

The changes include ensuring only judges from the supreme or federal courts can issue search warrants against journalists for offences related to disclosing sensitive government information.

Attorney-General Christian Porter says transparency is key to a healthy democracy.

“These reforms support the right of journalists and whistleblowers to hold governments at all levels to account by shining a light on issues that are genuinely in the public interest,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

But the media union says government agencies can still obtain warrants to investigate and jail journalists and their sources.

“There is an urgent need for much broader reform to remove laws that criminalise journalism,” the union’s federal president Marcus Strom said.

Labor says the flagged changes should only be a starting point.

“No journalist should ever face the prospect of being charged or even jailed just for doing their job,” shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said.

“A strong and independent media is vital to holding governments and oppositions to account and to inform the Australian public.”

The issue came to the fore last year when a warrant to search a News Corp journalist’s home – later slapped down by the High Court – was issued by an ACT magistrate.

It allowed her Canberra home to be searched by federal police in relation to a story claiming the government wanted to broaden its powers to spy on Australians.

Warrants against journalists or media organisations would have to be weighed against the purpose of public interest journalism and arguments from authorities.

Warrants could still be sprung on media organisations, but a public interest advocate would then contest it.

Federal police raided the ABC’s Sydney headquarters last year over 2017 reports based on leaked Defence papers, that revealed soldiers may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

Neither of the two journalists targeted were charged, with Dan Oakes finding out in October commonwealth prosectors didn’t think it would be in the public interest.

Mr Porter has promised to improve reporting requirements on warrants used against journalists.

The attorney-general or the minister for home affairs would have to tell the public how many warrants were granted against journalists each year, and the specific offences.

Australia’s spy agency would have to tell the attorney-general how many times it applied for warrants in relation to a media organisation or journalist, and how many were granted.

Mr Porter has also released the government’s response to a review looking at whistleblower protections in the public service.

Flagged changes aim to make the legal framework clearer and to ensure laws focus more on serious wrongdoing and misconduct, while weighing national security risks.

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