Asio warns ‘hostile actors’ could exploit journalist public interest exemptions | Australia news

Journalists should not be given exemptions to security laws that impinge on press freedom because “hostile actors” would attempt to exploit them as “cover” for their spying activities, Asio has warned.

Australia’s spy agency made the warning in a submission to the press freedom inquiry, due to hear on Wednesday from the Australian Federal Police, responsible for the high-profile raids on the News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the headquarters of the ABC.

The submission – which Asio first asked to be kept secret before agreeing to make it public – echoes warnings from Asio director general Duncan Lewis when parliament was considering defences for journalists in espionage laws passed last year.

Asio told the inquiry that its jurisdiction with respect to journalists is “exceptionally limited” and is confined to gathering information in circumstances such as where a journalist engages in foreign interference, accesses classified information or a hostile actor uses “the cover of journalism to pursue activities relevant to security”.

Asio noted Lewis’ evidence that journalists were frequently targeted by foreign agencies, citing an article by the Australian Financial Review’s Angus Griggs in which he revealed a Chinese agent tried to recruit him to pass on information about stories on Chinese cyber hacking and industrial espionage.

“In Australia today, journalism is being used as cover by hostile intelligence actors,” Asio said, warning that there are “many similarities between the activities of journalists and foreign intelligence officers that make journalism a suitable cover for hiding intelligence activity”.

“For example, both occupations are inquisitive, both require access to people, places and sensitive information, and both involve analysis of issues of interest to the public.

“Asio considers that additional legal exemptions or carve-outs, for journalists or the work of the media, would provide more opportunities for potential exploitation by hostile actors and could present an increased challenge for Asio in performing its functions to protect Australia from threats to national security.”

Asio credited the media for “exposing espionage and acts of foreign interference in Australia” and for self-reporting approaches from foreign spies, but said there is “a risk that not all approaches will be rejected or reported to appropriate authorities”.

Asio warned that journalists are unable to assess whether publishing classified information could harm a sensitive source or capability “because the sensitivity relates to the method by which the underlying intelligence was collected, not to the content of the document itself”.

Asio said the issue of warrants and use of special powers are already subject to “robust accountability and oversight mechanisms”, citing the fact journalist information warrants are needed to access metadata.

On Tuesday the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security heard that the attorney’s general department had warned Channel Nine to consider whether a story about the One Nation candidate Steve Dickson misbehaving in a strip club may have made it an agent of foreign influence because of the involvement of Al Jazeera.

On Wednesday the committee will hear from the Australian Federal Police’s outgoing commissioner Andrew Colvin, the departments of home affairs and the attorney general, intelligence agencies and the commonwealth ombudsman.

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