“Some have suggested this may be deliberate and reflects an intention to control and limit the debate around these issues and the outcomes that can be delivered.”
The coalition of media outlets said it had “serious reservations about whether this inquiry is the right way to achieve the outcomes we believe are necessary to redress the combined impact of more than a decade of law making in the name of national security”.
The terms of reference were set by the Coalition government, which controls the committee.
The scope includes the impact of law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ work on journalism, the reasons for journalists being subject to the powers of those agencies, and what changes could be made to better balance press freedom and national security.
There is also a specific reference to consideration of contested hearings for search warrants and agencies’ requests to access the data of journalists.
The companies urged the committee to “take the broadest possible interpretation” of those terms in order to examine problems not related to national security.
In the submission, the companies said there must be “quick and decisive” action and outlined six specific recommendations.
They have called for the right to contest warrants, stronger protections for whistleblowers, restrictions on government secrecy, an improved freedom of information regime, protections for journalists in national security legislation, and reform of defamation law.
The Australian Federal Police has rejected the proposal for contestable search warrants, saying in its submission that the change would “fundamentally undermine” the effectiveness of warrants.
The police suggested early warning of a search warrant would “undermine investigations by alerting suspects and providing opportunities to destroy evidence”.
The ABC is challenging the validity of the search warrant that was executed at its Sydney headquarters on June 5, seeking the return of the documents seized by police.
In a Federal Court hearing on Friday, lawyers for the national broadcaster argued the warrant was “legally unreasonable” and “excessively broad”.
Matt Collins, QC, representing the ABC, argued that decision makers should have taken into account a range of factors as pointing against a warrant being sought and issued, including the protection of journalists’ sources, and the warrant fell foul of the implied freedom of political communication in the commonwealth constitution.
But Neil Williams, SC, for the AFP, said it was “plainly wrong” to suggest that no reasonable person would have made the decision to seek or issue the search warrant.
The parties return to court on August 19 for a further preliminary hearing.
With Michaela Whitbourn
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.