Charities Beg For Change To 'Chilling' New Security Laws

Human rights groups to "operate in fear" under new laws.

Charities and human rights organisations have again pleaded with the federal government to amend proposed national security and foreign interference laws, saying the current form could have a "chilling" effect on whistleblowers and humanitarian work.

New drafts of two separate pieces of legislation are expected to be introduced into parliament next week -- the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill. The two bills were first brought forward in late 2017, coming in the wake of concern about interference in global politics by nations including Russia.

The bills update laws around treason, sabotage and espionage, as well as requiring any person or group working with foreign governments or organisations to register that interest.

"The threat of political interference by foreign intelligence services is a problem of the highest order and is getting worse," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement in December.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation recently reported "threats from terrorism, espionage and foreign interference are unprecedented".

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and then- Attorney-General George Brandis introduce the foreign interference bills in December 2017 (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

However, charities, human rights bodies and others in civil society have expressed alarm since the bills' introduction. Organisations including Oxfam, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch told ten daily they feared the bills have been written so broadly they could effectively outlaw important humanitarian and public interest work, such as exposing military misconduct, sharing environmental research, or even working with the United Nations.

"If we're doing reports on a particularly sensitive area, or relying on information leaked from a government department, we would have to think carefully about whether we could publish that or we could be prosecuted," Elaine Pearson, of Human Rights Watch, told ten daily.

"The government says its not the purpose of the law to go after human rights activists, but who knows what the government will be like in future? We shouldn't put that much faith in the executive branch."

Amnesty International and other groups are concerned about the laws.

The bills effectively criminalise disclosures that could harm Australia's political or economic interests, with civil organisations claiming the legislation is worded so broadly that this could even include disclosing human rights abuses to the United Nations.

"This bill casts its net so wide, the ordinary day-to-day work of charities like us could be picked up,"  said Patrick O'Leary, senior officer with Pew Charitable Trusts.

The group advocates for initiatives such as those employing Indigenous rangers for environmental projects. They have travelled to places like Canada to share insights with the First Nations people of that country, which O'Leary said might mean they would have to register as foreign agents.

"That could catch us in the bill and make us register as being under the influence of a foreign official. That's a complete misrepresentation of our work," he said.

The government and the Labor opposition are working closely on the bills, with hopes to push through the changes before the upcoming five by-elections on the 'super Saturday' on July 28. This coming week is the last parliament sitting week before that time.

One of the participants in the Pew programs (supplied)

Labor's Anthony Byrne, deputy chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, warned opponents of the laws "do not push back" in parliament this week.

O'Leary claimed being forced to register as a foreign agent would also affect donations to, and the reputation of, charities.

"It's not like the government will go out and explain why we're on this list, which might affect our donations and the way other governments perceive us. There's also the regulatory burden, and big penalties if you get the paperwork wrong or forget to log some communication," he  said.

"We cant be lazy about it, we have to be proactive. It puts a needless burden on us."

Rachel Ball, head of public policy and advocacy at Oxfam Australia, echoed the sentiments about how the laws could affect how charities and groups are regarded.

Oxfam says the laws could affect its ability to deliver foreign aid (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

"The bills would have us formally registered as an agent working on behalf of foreign governments, but we do no such thing. It’s important we protect our reputation because it’s fundamental for us to partner with civil society organisations and governments overseas to deploy foreign aid," she told ten daily.

"It could have a chilling effect in our advocacy for important causes. Foreign governments might be reluctant to work with us. We also work in countries where there is threat from the government itself, so if we're registered as working on behalf of the government, groups in those countries might be reluctant to work with us too. "

The federal government has stated repeatedly it does not plan to catch charities or human rights bodies in the net created by the new laws, but that has not reassured many organisations. A recent updated draft of the laws inserted a public interest provision for journalists -- among 60 other changes -- and the organisations told ten daily they wanted a similar exemption written specifically into the laws.

"If they weren't going to enforce it [on us], why are we getting caught up in it? They can amend it. Who can say what a future government will do? If they're so relaxed that it won't target us, make it clear  that we won't be picked up. If there's no purpose to target us, why put us on a register?" O'Leary said.

(Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Claire O'Rourke, director of external affairs for Amnesty International, told ten daily she hoped the government would insert provisions to protect civil society.

"We're still calling on government to make changes to the bill. The defences mentioned so far don't offer us enough comfort, and we still retain great fears charities could be subject to prosecution under these laws," she said.

"Otherwise, charities will operate in fear."