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:
These continued attacks on press freedoms in Australia should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Freedom of the Press to scrutinise the Govt is crucial to liberal democracy.
— Australian Progressives (@AusProgressive) June 5, 2019
— Dan Ilic (@danilic) June 5, 2019
A number of issues have been raised. The government has been accused of hypocrisy:
Serious questions are being raised about why leaks that support the government's position aren't referred for investigation, but those exposing government misconduct are consistently risking prison time. https://t.co/VC8pewbPLZ
— Alice Drury (@AliceDrury) June 6, 2019
Australian journalist Peter Greste who spent 440 days imprisoned in Egypt in 2013 -2015, called for urgent legislation to protect journalists:
Earlier this year, I laid out the case for a Media Freedom Act to protect a fundamental pillar of our democracy. Now, in the wake of AFP searches of @annikasmethurst, @BenFordham and now ABC, it seems vital. @4JournoFreedom https://t.co/sSktwOLzbv
— Peter Greste (@PeterGreste) June 5, 2019
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:
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:
AFP: I’m still staggered by the power of this warrant. It allows the AFP to “add, copy, delete or alter” material in the ABC’s computers. All Australians, please think about that: as of this moment, the AFP has the power to delete material in the ABC’s computers. Australia 2019.
— John Lyons (@TheLyonsDen) June 5, 2019
He resisted attempts by the AFP to stop his tweets during the raid:
AFP RAID LIVE: The AFP have just realised I’m live tweeting the raid and raised it with me. I’ve said I think ABC staff and others have a right to know about a raid on our premises. I’ve said I won’t use any names of alleged sources or confidential material. They’ve accepted this
— John Lyons (@TheLyonsDen) June 5, 2019
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:
Whistleblower protections ‘a sham’, says lawyer whose leaks led to ABC raids https://t.co/fFsSDtG0yF
— lynlinking (@lynlinking) June 6, 2019
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”:
“Suddenly, just days after a federal election, the Federal Police launches this attack on press freedom. It seems that when the truth embarrasses the government, the result is the Federal Police will come knocking at your door,”- #MEAAMedia President @strom_m.#PressFreedom pic.twitter.com/6qtj5XUMCa
— MEAA (@withMEAA) June 5, 2019
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:
Apparently AFP members have been “subjected to unprecedented scrutiny” this week. pic.twitter.com/6wV6zjxSe8
— Annika Smethurst (@annikasmethurst) June 6, 2019
There is bound to be some lively debate when the Federal parliament resumes in a few weeks’ time.