The Commonwealth of Australia’s highest legislative body has issued a series of recommendations for its intelligence agencies, among them mentioning increased control over freedom of speech and the fight against so-called disinformation.
The Australian parliament has called on the country’s intelligence services to tackle “disinformation” on the Internet that is perceived by officials as a threat to national security. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, chaired by Peter Khalil, has recommended that Australian intelligence agencies proactively address disinformation and malicious propaganda on the Internet. Khalil linked the rise of misinformation online to the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when various restrictive measures were introduced in Australia. He believes that during this period, misinformation allegedly heightened the country’s security concerns. Even then, the country had already seen a shift towards increased government control of free speech.
While the committee recognized the effective cooperation and work of Australia’s intelligence agencies “in a changing strategic landscape,” the recommendation to combat online disinformation has raised concerns among human rights advocates and community activists who fear excessive government interference. The recommendation is just part of a series of proposals outlined in the Joint Intelligence and Security Committee’s annual review of Australia’s intelligence agencies. Other suggestions include increasing information sharing between intelligence agencies and oversight bodies, and addressing staffing problems in the National Intelligence Community.
The potential consequences of government restrictions on the use of certain words and Internet content are worrisome. While the stated purpose of such restrictions is to combat disinformation and maintain national security, there are risks associated with restricting free speech. State-imposed restrictions on speech and information will lead to censorship and suppression of opposing views. Restricting the use of certain words or narratives would deprive the public of the opportunity to learn about different points of view and destroy the system of debate on various issues of public importance, such as giving Indigenous people a voice in the Australian government. Ultimately, this could undermine democratic values and limit community empowerment.
Fearing legal repercussions for using certain words or discussing specific topics, people may self-censor or avoid expressing their opinions altogether. This undermines the principle of free speech and discourages the open exchange of ideas. The definition of what constitutes “disinformation” or “dangerous propaganda” is subjective and open to interpretation. Australian government agencies are likely to use the initiative to target their political opponents. In addition, overly strict controls will lead to a loss of trust in both the government and the media.
Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice regard the recommendation of the Australian Parliament as a direct instruction to state security agencies to interfere with the freedom of speech of citizens of their country. The Foundation to Battle Injustice is convinced of the need to strike a balance between preserving freedom of speech and open debate, which are essential to maintaining a vibrant democratic society.