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Coalition forced to water down proposed foreign interference laws after backlash

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The Federal Government has been forced to water down its proposed foreign espionage laws, in the face of a backlash from Labor, the Greens and the country's largest media organisations.

Key points:

  • Serious concerns have been raised about the legislation, which could leave a journalist facing years in jail for receiving classified information
  • A-G Christian Porter says his department will draft several amendments to ensure journalists are adequately protected
  • The laws will be debated in Federal Parliament in coming months

Serious concerns have been raised about the legislation, which could leave a journalist facing years in jail for receiving classified information.

The Coalition has denied that was its intention but in a bid to remove any doubt, Attorney-General Christian Porter said his department would draft several amendments to ensure journalists are adequately protected.

"There is not any plan by the Government to see journalists going to jail simply for receiving documents and that would not occur under this Bill as currently drafted," he said.

"The proposed amendments I have instructed will make this completely clear and further strengthen protections to journalists."

The Attorney-General admitted "legitimate concerns" have been raised about the legislation but rejected calls for entire industries, including the media, to be made exempt.

"There is no desire by the Turnbull Government to limit the legitimate work of journalists or their employers," he said.

"[But] Australians would not believe it was reasonable for a journalist to publish information which could risk people's lives or that they should be allowed to report the identity of undercover agents."

Last month, 15 media organisations made a joint submission to a parliamentary inquiry warning that the foreign interference laws could undermine freedom of the press.

The companies — including the ABC, Fairfax and News Corp — warned the proposed laws would criminalise all steps of news reporting and put journalists at a "significant risk" of jail time for possessing information that is in the public interest.

Under the Attorney-General's proposed changes, journalists could defend their reporting on the basis that they "reasonably believe" it was in the public interest, but it is unclear whether this will alleviate the industry's concerns.

The laws were announced amid growing concerns within the intelligence community about the influence of foreign agents and political donations.

Mr Porter strongly defended the Bill, citing ASIO's recent advice that Australia is in a period "probably more dangerous in many respects than any time since the Cold War".

The laws will be debated in Federal Parliament in coming months.

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