Democracy will suffer unless the media is exempted from the proposed metadata retention regime, the press council says.
Australian Press Council chairman David Weisbrot is concerned the laws will crush investigative journalism and dissuade whistleblowers from coming forward.
‘A healthy democratic society requires robust free speech and a free and vigorous press to hold governments and other powerful interests to account,’ he said.
The laws, first debated in parliament on Thursday, would have telcos retain customer metadata for two years for warrantless access by government agencies.
Metadata is the footprint left by electronic communications, including phone numbers used, how long people talk to each other, email addresses and the time messages are sent.
The worry for journalists is that sources might be hesitant to come forward knowing that metadata could lead investigators to their door.
‘These are not hypothetical concerns,’ Professor Weisbrot said.
He said governments were increasingly chasing down leaks and stripping away whistleblower protections.
‘These legitimate concerns cannot be addressed effectively short of exempting journalists and media organisations.’
A parliamentary committee recommended in February the laws be passed, but called for safeguards for journalists.
It recommended the issue of protecting journalists’ sources be referred to a separate inquiry to report to parliament within three months.
The government wants the regime legislated this month.