Police raids on major media organisations expose lack of press freedom in Australia

Australian Federal Police raid on ABC

Australian Federal Police raid on ABC – Screenshot ABC TV News

Raids by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on members of two of the country's largest media organisations have caused a furore down under.

On 4 June 2019, the home of Annika Smethurst, the national politics editor of the Sunday Telegraph and other newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp Australia, was searched as part of an investigation into the publication of a leaked plan to expand government surveillance in 2018. A whistleblower had revealed the proposal to give an intelligence agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), new powers to spy on its citizens within Australia. Smethurst reported on the secret plan for the Daily Telegraph (original article behind a pay wall).

The following day, a warrant was served at the Sydney offices of the Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), an independent national broadcaster funded primarily by the Federal government, naming three of its journalists. It concerned the publication in 2017 of leaked documents alleging possible unlawful killings by members of the Australian special forces in Afghanistan, the so-called Afghan Files. Federal Liberal Member of Parliament and government backbencher Andrew Hastie, then a SAS officer, was mentioned in the report. He is the Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

The warrants were issued under sections of the Crimes Act dealing with classified information. The Act does not have ‘public interest’ safeguards or exceptions for journalists or whistleblowers. Whether the controversial data retention and encryption laws have also been used by the AFP is unknown. Last year, the Australian parliament passed a law allowing law enforcement agencies to access encrypted communications. The data retention law, which came into effect in 2017, requires telecommunication service providers to store metadata for at least two years. Government agencies are capable of requesting access to the metadata without providing a warrant.

The AFP denied that there is a link between the raids and the Australian government denied any knowledge or involvement in them. However, the government itself made the original referrals of both cases to the AFP through its “agency heads”.

Reactions online have been overwhelmingly negative:

A number of issues have been raised. The government has been accused of hypocrisy:

Australian journalist Peter Greste who spent 440 days imprisoned in Egypt in 2013 -2015, called for urgent legislation to protect journalists:

Australia does not have a charter or bill of rights guaranteeing press freedom or freedom of speech.

In a wide-ranging article on The Conversation Rebecca Ananian-Welsh explained that ”Australia has more national security laws than any other nation.” She added:

It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.

She also raised questions of source confidentiality and “the chilling of public interest journalism”.

Social media played a major role in spreading the issues. After the ABC raid began, seven of the top ten Twitter trends in Australia concerned the unfolding events:

Screen Shot: Twitter 2019-06-05 at 6.06.25 pm

Screen Shot: Twitter 2019-06-05 at 6.06.25 pm AEST

As the raid on ABC's Sydney headquarters was unfolding, John Lyons, Executive Editor of ABC News & ABC Head of Investigative Journalism, was live tweeting:

He resisted attempts by the AFP to stop his tweets during the raid:

Many online believe that the raids were meant to deter whistleblowers such as David McBride who was charged in relation to the Afghan Files leaks:

There are currently several whistleblowers before the courts. These include Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery who revealed illegal Australian spying on Timor Leste in 2004. Their trial is masked in secrecy. Another is Richard Boyle who exposed unethical behaviour such as aggressive debt collection practices at the Australian Taxation Office.

Emily Howie, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, defended whistleblowers and journalists:

Without a free press, we don't have democracy. We don't know what our government is doing behind closed doors. These people should be lauded for revealing the truth but instead they face the real possibility of prison time.

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison supported the AFP’s actions but tried to strike a conciliatory note, suggesting a review of relevant laws is a possibility.

Marcus Storm, media section president of the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), described the raids as an ”attack on press freedom”:

Meanwhile the acting AFP commissioner Neil Gaughan warned that reporters and media organisations may face charges for publishing secret government information, emphasising that The Crimes Act applies to both the leaking and publication of material. He also added that “it is an offence to actually have that particular material still on websites”.

Veteran journalist and current chairwoman of the ABC Board Ita Buttrose condemned the raid on her organisation as “clearly designed to intimidate”. She continued:

[..]legitimate journalistic endeavours that expose flawed decision-making or matters that policy makers and public servants would simply prefer were secret, should not automatically and conveniently be classed as issues of national security.

Smethurst, national politics editor of the Daily Telegraph, responded to the raids with this mocking tweet:

There is bound to be some lively debate when the Federal parliament resumes in a few weeks’ time.

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