Australia seeks to stop animal rights groups with tough video laws

SYDNEY, July 25 Fri Jul 25, 2014 2:23am EDT

SYDNEY, July 25 (Reuters) - Australia is considering tougher laws to stop animal rights activists secretly filming on farms and abattoirs and airing the vision in an effort to protect a multi-million dollar livestock trade, a move rights groups say will hide abuse.

South Australia state is furthest along with a draft law before parliament that would impose heavy fines and a three-year jail term for secretly recording animal cruelty images.

Seven U.S. states have introduced "Ag Gag" laws to make it illegal to take photos or videos at farms or slaughterhouses without the operators' permission. U.S. rights groups say the "Ag Gag" laws violate the constitutional rights to free speech.

Livestock producers in Australia say current trespass laws are not effective in preventing or prosecuting animal rights groups who covertly film or photograph on farms and threaten the livelihood of farmers.

In 2011, armed with little more than mobile phone, animal rights campaigners bought Australia's livestock industry to its knees. Vision of animal abuse in an Indonesian abattoir ignited a public outcry and swiftly saw the Australian government ban live cattle exports to Indonesia.

Despite the ban lasting only five weeks, Australian cattle exports fell more 20 percent that year and was seen as a catalyst behind Indonesia's policy of self sufficiency that now limits imports from Australia.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) this month released footage showing shearers punching, kicking and throwing sheep, drawing criticism from Australia's government.

"You can not have some sort of quasi vigilante group deciding that their moral ethics and their moral paradigm gives them the right to circumvent all the rules of the nation for the purpose of closing down an industry," Australian Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce told Reuters on Friday.

Australia's national government has said it would like to see all states and territories adopt "Ag Gag" laws.

"If this evidence gathering becomes hindered by so called "Ag Gag" legislation, the concern is that the general public will continue to be left in the dark about the many atrocities committed against animals," Claire Fryer, PETA Australia's campaign coordinator told Reuters.

"Existing regulation of the treatment of animals used in agriculture has proved inadequate, making it necessary for individuals and animal-protection groups to gather evidence and report violations," said Fryer.

(Editing by Michael Perry)