In the span of three days, Australian police have targeted both news organizations and journalists in a crackdown on the leak of confidential information that many are calling an affront to the freedom of the press.
On Tuesday, the Australian Federal Police entered the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with a warrant to search for documents relating to reporting on the Afghan Files — a series that used a leak of classified data regarding the Australian elite special forces in Afghanistan. The story exposed incidents of troops “killing unarmed men and children,” the ABC reported in 2017.
“This warrant relates to the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret, which is an extremely serious matter that has the potential to undermine Australia’s national security,” police said in a statement.
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One day earlier, police searched the home and computers of Annika Smethurst, an editor at News Corp.
That warrant related to her reporting on Australia’s alleged plan to increase the powers of its cybersecurity agency, which would have allowed the agency to monitor the online activity of its own citizens.
Smethurst’s story relied on leaked documents.
In another instance, journalist Ben Fordham said Australia’s interior ministry contacted him to ask for information about a confidential informant in relation to his story about boats carrying asylum seekers into the country.
Ministry officials reportedly told him the information in the story was highly confidential, but Fordham said: “The chances of me revealing my sources is zero.”
Police questioning of journalists is not new, but raids on the two influential news organizations sparked warnings that national security was being used to justify curbs on whistleblowing and reporting that might embarrass the government.
“There are insufficient safeguards to prevent law enforcement agencies from using these powers to expose journalists’ confidential sources,” said Emily Howie, a legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre.
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Press pushes back
Around the world, journalists have called the actions a “dangerous act of intimidation.”
Peter Greste, director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, said the raids were a serious issue for Australians, who he said care deeply about press freedom.
Greste is a former Al Jazeera reporter who was jailed with two colleagues in Egypt from 2013 to 2015 on national security charges brought by the Egyptian government.
“I’m not suggesting that Australia is about to become Egypt any time soon, but what we are seeing seems to me to be on the same spectrum,” he said.
“This is a serious development and raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and defence matters,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation director David Anderson said in a statement.
He vowed to continue reporting on national security and intelligence issues.
“The ABC stands by its journalists, will protect its sources and continue to report without fear or favour on national security and intelligence issues when there is a clear public interest,” Anderson said.
News Corp, controlled by media baron Rupert Murdoch, called the raid “outrageous and heavy-handed” and “a dangerous act of intimidation.”
—With files from Reuters