A cache of sensitive documents was found in two antique filing cabinets in Australia (Image via Fox News)

After an Unlikely Discovery, Australia Faces a Freedom-of-Speech Debate

The ‘Cabinet Files’ surfaced just as the Australian Parliament was set to discuss new espionage laws that could criminalize such a discovery.

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The ‘Cabinet Files’ surfaced just as the Australian Parliament was set to discuss new espionage laws that could criminalize such a discovery.

The contents of two $10 filing cabinets, which are being called The Cabinet Files, could change Australia’s espionage laws.

John Lyon, the head of investigative journalism at ABC News and previous associate editor of The Australian, published a story detailing the discovery of the documents in both publications.

According to Lyon, a Canberra man who bought two filing cabinets for his home did not realize that they were filled with approximately 20 years of sensitive information.

After researching about the documents, the new owner of the cabinets contacted Michael McKinnon, a journalist with ABC News who had been advocating for the release of the documents for years.

After deliberating whether they should just “WikiLeaks” the articles in an information dump, turn them over to the police or treat them as a journalistically viable, ABC journalists decided to examine the documents and publish only important public information that would not risk the national security of the country. Afterward, they turned the unpublished documents over to the government.

However, the documents’ release came at an auspicious time, as the contents the Cabinet Files surfaced just as the Australian Parliament was set to begin debating a new series of espionage laws.

According to The Australian’s summary of the proposed espionage bill, the government plans to amend the Criminal Code Act of 1995.

The Code deals with a number of issues related to espionage, national security and freedom of the press. For example, one component of the bill seeks to “amend existing, and introduce new, offences relating to treason and other threats to national security, such as interference with Australian democratic or political rights by conduct involving the use of force, violence or intimidation…”

According to Lyon, the the proposed bill could change the way journalists are able to work with information and with interviewees. “Should a federal police ­officer or public servant want to speak to a journalist about possible corrupt behaviour,” he wrote, “the very act of them speaking to a journalist could make them, and the journalist, liable for up to 20 years’ jail,” he wrote.

As a result, given the timing of the Cabinet Files and the recent push to update the Criminal Code Act, Australians are weighing the merits of the new espionage laws against the press’ ability to act as a watchdog to the government. For groups who think the bill would encroach on free speech, the effects the law could have on journalists and free speech is a concern.

One article trending on Google in Australia is titled “How Australia’s Espionage Laws Could Silence Whistle-Blowers and Activists,” by Damien Cave. Another, titled “New Bill would make Australia worst in the free world for criminalising journalism,” references several groups opposing the new bill.

If the bill is enforced, journalists will need to find another way to handle sensitive information and report about topics of public interest.

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Gabriella Evans

Northern Arizona University

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