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PM proposes warrants to access journalists' metadata

In a bid to pass data retention laws, Tony Abbott has proposed warrants to access journalists' metadata. But the press union has rejected the calls, saying confidential sources should be kept confidential, whether a warrant is involved or not.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Tony Abbott on Facebook

Law enforcement and security agencies could be required to obtain a warrant to access journalists' metadata under new amendments to data retention legislation, proposed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

However, the union representing Australian journalists -- the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance -- has rejected the calls. According to the MEAA, the laws still permit "an outrageous attack on press freedom" by allowing journalists confidential sources to be identified, albeit through a warranted process.

In a letter to Bill Shorten, Mr Abbott referred to concerns raised by the Opposition Leader regarding government agency access to metadata generated by journalists. While Mr Abbott argued that these concerns had also been tabled for review by an official parliamentary committee, he said he would propose amendments on this front in order to have the laws passed quickly.

"I have decided that a further amendment be moved that will require agencies to obtain a warrant in order to access a journalist's metadata for the purpose of identifying a source," the Prime Minister wrote. "The Government does not believe that this is necessary but is proposing to accept it to expedite the bill."

Mr Abbott argued that he would not compromise the capacity of law enforcement and security agencies to deal with the "twin evils" of terrorism and serious crime.

However, he also noted, "The principle of freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy, a proposition about which I myself, as a former working journalist, need no reminding".

In pushing for these amendments, Mr Abbott sought assurances from Mr Shorten that the Opposition would support the changes and help the passage of the bill through parliament by the end of the current parliamentary sitting period, scheduled for March 26.

However, the details of any amendments are unclear at this stage. In particular, the Government is yet to define what kinds of journalist-generated metadata would require a warrant, what safeguards would exist for whistleblowers and exactly how a journalist would be defined.

These issues were among the concerns raised by MEAA CEO Paul Murphy, who said journalists must never allow the identity of confidential sources to be revealed -- whether through a warranted process or not.

Accessing metadata to hunt down journalists' sources, regardless of the procedures used, threatens press freedom and democracy. It means important stories in the public interest can be silenced before they ever become known, and whistleblowers can be persecuted and prosecuted. It means journalists can be jailed for simply doing their job.

The Prime Minister's proposal... [allows government agencies] to trawl through a journalist's metadata in order to expose a confidential source. Putting a hurdle like a warrant in the way will not change the outcome: using a journalists' metadata to pursue a whistleblower.

Murphy argued that safeguards introduced through parliamentary review were "no safeguards at all because they still allowed government agencies to hunt down journalists' sources".

He also warned that, should mandatory data retention became law in Australia, journalists would be "forced to use the tools of counter-surveillance such as anonymisation and encryption" to protect the identities of sources.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 is due to be debated in the House of Representatives this week.

CNET has contacted the office of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten for comment.