Law would force journalists to reveal sources

PROPOSED LAW: A paper issued by Justice Minister Judith Collinsi includes changes to "journalistic privilege".
PROPOSED LAW: A paper issued by Justice Minister Judith Collinsi includes changes to "journalistic privilege".

Labour has raised the alarm over sweeping new powers in proposed search and surveillance legislation that could affect the ability of journalists to protect their sources.

The changes are among a raft of new measures in the legislation, which the Government says must be passed by next month or it will threaten the ability of police to carry out covert surveillance.

Justice Minister Judith Collins yesterday tabled a 288-page document outlining the changes, which include letting police seize firearms licences and dealers' licences, and new powers to search people for firearms if there is a police safety order on them.

The Search and Surveillance Bill has had a rocky path through Parliament after languishing on the order paper for years.

The paralysis forced urgent temporary Video Camera Surveillance legislation last year after the courts ruled that search warrants executed by police did not allow them to use video surveillance.

The temporary legislation expires next month.

The bill brings together a raft of laws covering search and surveillance powers by a variety of agencies and specifies when searches may be carried, how they may be carried out and by whom.

It also gives police new powers including examination orders, production orders, surveillance device warrants and the ability to preserve evidence of serious offences punishable by 14 years' imprisonment or more.

Ms Collins said the tight timeframe was why the changes would not be sent back to a select committee for public scrutiny.

"There is a risk that current investigations could be jeopardised along with the safety of police working on them."

She said the other major change - journalists' claim to journalistic privilege when protecting their sources of information - would be determined by a High Court judge. "While a claim of privilege is being decided by the court, the information in question will be held at the High Court for safekeeping - not with the agency conducting the search."

But Labour justice spokesman Charles Chauvel said protection of media privilege remained insufficient and the party would not be supporting the changes.

Fairfax Media group executive editor Paul Thompson said the changes "on the face of it" seemed a genuine attempt by the Government to safeguard journalists' ethical responsibility to protect sources. "But it is nevertheless a concern that reporters would be required to hand over information to a judge who may in turn decide to hand it over to an investigating agency. We need to know more about this proposal, which could have a chilling effect on investigative journalism."