Australia Threatens to Jail Citizens Who Embarrass Repressive Governments

2014 730 just swAustralian Justice (Photo: Michael Coghlan / Flickr)If you’re in Australia, you could go to prison for tweeting this piece. On July 30,WikiLeaks released an unprecedented gag order by the Australian Supreme Court in Melbourne, Victoria, forbidding anyone (including the Australian press) from talking about a multimillion-dollar corruption case involving leaders and senior officials from Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. What’s at stake? “National security” – at least, whatever national security interests are involved with telling the public that leaders are involved in bribery.

The gag is a superinjunction, meaning the terms of the gag are secret, and it is a criminal offense to reveal them. That means, theoretically, anyone sharing the order or linking to it – including news organizations and social media users – could face jail time.

Thus according to the Australian government, “national security” means threatening to punish the Australian people if they embarrass the leaders of the most censoring, repressive countries for journalism in Asia. The story was shared thousands of times within minutes of posting.

Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia all have incredibly harsh sedition laws and regularly imprison and abuse members of the press for reporting on topics considered “anti-state.” Vietnam is the second worst jailer of journalists in Asia, after China; Article 258 of its penal code punishes “abusing democratic freedoms,” a clause regularly used against bloggers. Most chillingly, Vietnam issued a decree in early 2013 that broadly prohibits all internet users from posting, or even linking to, news from outside the country.

In Malaysia, bloggers are detained and charged under vague national security laws really designed to curb criticism of public officials. Those onerous laws include an Official Secrets Act, a Sedition Act, and a Security Offenses Act. The Malaysian parliament passed a law in 2012 that would make websites liable for “seditious postings” made anonymously.

Journalists in Indonesia, in contrast, enjoy fairly robust legal rights on paper. But the reality is much harsher. Between 1996 and 2010, eight journalists were killed for reporting on sensitive topics and corruption. Fuad Muhammad Syarifuddin (Udin) was murdered after reporting on a bribery scandal involving a government official.

If you want to criticize the Vietnamese, Malaysian or Indonesian leaders named in the gag, you certainly won’t be doing it in any of those countries. Australia now won’t let you either. The Supreme Court is protecting the reputations of foreign leaders over the liberty and speech rights of Australian citizens and the victims of those leaders.

Australia’s threat of criminal prosecution of anyone who reveals the truthis anathema to everyideaof a free press. This has absolutely nothing to do with national security; Australia is legitimizing the censorship and imprisonment of journalists in oppressive governments.