Journalist Metadata Scheme
Australia’s new journalist metadata scheme has come under the spotlight of the international human rights law community. The scheme allows for warrants to be issued to gain journalists’ sources without informing the relevant journalist.
The Scheme Under Scrutiny
The Parliamentary Joint Commission on Human Rights (PJCHR) is reviewing the details of the new scheme. Soon after the PJCHR launched an investigation into the system of warrants used to gain access to journalist metadata, it published a report outlining the schemes’ inconsistency with international human rights law. As a nation which proudly promotes respect for human rights, rights to privacy, a fair hearing, and freedom of expression are under the spotlight. In their defence, the attorney general has declared that it is ‘reasonable’ for a journalist to be blindsided to the application and subsequent issue of warrants.
Whether these procedures are in the public interest remain the subject of contemplation. It leaves us wondering whether it is easy to sidestep the obligations imposed under international human rights law? At issue, is whether the scheme can operate despite its supposed inconsistency with international legal requirements.
Is International Human Rights Law Binding on Australia?
There are limited mechanisms by which international law can be enforced. Given that the Australian Constitution does not provide a legal ‘rights’ framework or a freedom of expression (beyond political communication), there is room for fundamental interests to be subjugated to others. Accordingly, it is possible for freedom of speech and privacy to be limited by the pursuit of national security.
Since 1980, Australia has been a signatory member of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which aims to safeguard a range of fundamental rights. This requires Australia to take all necessary steps to give effect to the rights protected in it. However, the majority of these rights are not absolute, but rather subject to restrictions. Further, the decisions of the body responsible for monitoring Australia’s compliance with the ICCPR – the Australian Human Rights Commission – are not binding.
The ICCPR and similar international instruments are intended to ensure Australia maintains a legal framework in accordance with international standards. But it remains to be seen whether this outcome is being achieved?
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