JOURNALISTS and whistleblowers will have increased protection from prosecution under new laws to be introduced by the Federal Government.
Changes to the Evidence Act will mean journalists may no longer be legally forced to reveal their sources to courts even if a person has broken a law in providing information.
The changes will also introduce a ground of "public interest in the publication of news" that judges will take into account when considering whether to protect whistleblowers from having their identity exposed in court.
Under the new laws, journalists writing on issues of national security [insecurity, propaganda etc] will also only be legally obliged to provide information on their source if the court determines it necessary.
Currently, if a court finds any issue of national security [insecurity, propaganda etc] involved in information provided for a report, the journalist must disclose that source or face prosecution for contempt of court.
The changes will be taken by Commonwealth Attorney-General Robert McClelland to a meeting with his state colleagues later this week.
Currently only the Commonwealth and NSW have legal privilege for journalists in their evidence acts, although the protection is minimal.
A spokesman for Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls said Victorian courts should continue employing discretion in relation to journalists' disclosures.
Last year two Herald-Sun journalists, Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, narrowly escaped a jail term after being convicted for contempt of court.
The two had refused to reveal their source on a story they wrote in 2004 of a cut in spending for veterans pensions. Despite the fact that the public servant had been charged with leaking the material, the court pressed McManus and Harvey to reveal their source.
After fining the two $7000, Victorian County Court chief judge Michael Rozenes said: "Until that law is altered, if it is ever to be, journalists remain in no different position than all other citizens."
The changes will seek to bring the law closer to standards expected in journalists' professional code of ethics, which asks that once anonymity is agreed to for a source, it not be revealed by the journalist.
Often a public servant who has merely spoken to a journalist about an issue can be found to have broken the law, meaning the journalist is under a legal obligation to provide information that brings them into conflict with their professional obligation.
Fairfax director of corporate affairs Bruce Wolpe welcomed the changes, calling them a "considerable improvement on the current law".
"This is the first time that something so explicit about freedom of the press or the publication of the news would have been written into the law."
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