The World

Australia’s Attacks on the Free Press

Recent raids send a chilling message to whistleblowers and reporters.

Craig McMurtrie, editorial director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, speaks to members of the media outside the ABC building.
Craig McMurtrie, editorial director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, speaks to members of the media outside the ABC building located at Ultimo in Sydney on Wednesday.
AAP/David Gray via Reuters

A journalist’s home raided after she reported on a secret government plan to spy on citizens’ texts and emails. A public broadcaster raided over a major report into the killing of unarmed civilians. A radio presenter “warned” over reporting on asylum-seekers and asked to turn over his sources. A whistleblower facing 161 years in prison. Human rights groups sounding the alarm about the intimidation of the media. Welcome to Australia.

The Australian Federal Police, known as the AFP, the force responsible for policing Australia’s national security, conducted two raids on the media in as many days this week, over two unrelated reports drawing on leaked classified documents—stories that were each over a year old.

On Tuesday morning, the AFP showed up at the home of Sunday Telegraph political editor Annika Smethurst as she was preparing for work, conducting a raid that lasted more than seven hours and allegedly involved rifling through her underwear drawer. (Don’t worry, police have since said: They had female officers to do that.) The raid sought to uncover sources from a 2018 Telegraph report that revealed leaked government correspondence considering radical new surveillance powers—an idea that was reportedly canned following the report. Then on Wednesday, the AFP raided the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the national broadcaster, with a warrant granting access to journalists’ notes, article drafts, graphics, visuals, meeting minutes, and emails relating to a 2017 story on the killing of unarmed Afghans by Australian special forces, in an eight-hour search that was live-tweeted by an ABC journalist. The military lawyer who leaked “the Afghan files” has already been charged and pleaded not guilty, standing by the leaks.

Police say that the two raids were unconnected, outside of both relating to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret.” In both cases, the authorities vaguely invoked “national security,” although it’s not been explained how the stories actually compromised Australia’s national security. Initially, the police appeared to be going after the leakers, not the journalists themselves, but the AFP has since updated its post-raid statement, mentioning sections of the law that make not just leaking but communicating classified documents an indictable offence. The acting AFP commissioner on Thursday declared that the police have not “ruled out” charging the journalists. Radio host Ben Fordham was reportedly also warned this week of an investigation into “unauthorized disclosure” by the Department of Home Affairs, after he revealed information about asylum-seeker boats attempting journeys to Australia, while the AFP has warned of further raids in the coming days and weeks.

Whether or not journalists are ultimately prosecuted, these raids are being viewed as a clear attack on freedom of the press, an attempt to intimidate both journalists and whistleblowers. A spokesman for the Rupert Murdoch–owned News Corp, which owns Smethurst’s Sunday Telegraph, said that the raid “sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia.” It’s unusual and heartening to see the divided press so united, with the raids being condemned in all corners of the media. It helps that “both sides” have been raided, with bitter enemies the ABC and News Corp rallying around each other in a rare moment of agreement. The National Press Club of Australia said the raids will have a “chilling effect on the right of journalists to carry out their jobs,” while the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery called them “an attack on press freedom and a danger for the wider freedoms of all Australians.”

The raids present a strong warning to potential future whistleblowers: don’t. Although the journalists involved have sworn to protect their sources, it’s highly likely that those sources will now be prosecuted. Recent laws have increased the sanctions on whistleblowers, who already faced harsh consequences under Australian law: A Taxation Office whistleblower in another case is facing 161 years in prison, while the whistleblower at the center of the ABC’s “Afghan files” leak faces a potential life sentence.

Human rights groups are also sounding the alarm, with the Human Rights Law Centre saying the raids were “part of a damaging trend of attacks on press freedom and democracy in Australia.” Reporters Without Borders tweeted, “The scene might be expected in an authoritarian country but not in a democracy.” Peter Greste, director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, suggested that these raids are “on the same spectrum” as his 2013 jailing by the Egyptian government.

While the raids are being roundly condemned by media and human rights groups, they are being quietly defended by the government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to condemn the raids, while also denying his recently reelected center-right government’s involvement. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton (a former police officer himself), whose ministry was at the center of Smethurst’s report, denied prior knowledge of the raids, calling suggestions of government interference an attack on police independence.

But the timing is suspicious, to say the least. The raids have come just after a contentious election, one that might have been swayed by this kind of scandal. (In the 2016 election, a raid that made the Labor Party look bad took place during the campaign.) They also occurred while Morrison was out of the country, attending D-Day commemorations in the United Kingdom. Even if the raids weren’t directed by the government, the timing suits it rather well.

Others have suggested the government’s reelection win may have actually emboldened it to order the raids. The powers being used aren’t brand-new, nor are the reports being investigated, so why pursue these cases now? And if the high-profile raids are unrelated, why have they come back to back? (The AFP claims it was a matter of resources.) New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties President Pauline Wright suggested that government officials are now “showing their muscle” on recently expanded laws, while Richard Flanagan, writing in the Guardian, called the government both “uninhibited” and “unhinged,” suggesting this signaled a turn toward authoritarianism. If the cases are not specifically connected, journalist Janine Perrett noted, the timing indicates a “co-ordinated crackdown” on press freedom.

These raids may seem shocking, but many familiar with Australia’s “ever-expanding” national security laws were not surprised. It’s telling that the raid against Smethurst was in response to a report about further attempts to increase surveillance on Australian citizens—this is the culmination of years of increasingly repressive security laws, and an increasingly powerful national security apparatus.

Last June, the government introduced new espionage laws, increasing the penalties on public officials who leak classified information and making it an offense for anyone to communicate that information. Under the initial proposal, journalists could have faced charges merely for possessing classified information, but after media industry complaints and a series of amendments, this was changed, and a “public interest” defense was added for journalists who report it. But despite pleas from the Law Council, no such defense was added for those who leak the info, leaving public interest whistleblowers at risk. The stories at the center of the raids predate the new powers and will be prosecuted under previous laws, but it’s not hard to see them as part of the same anti-whistleblower trend.

The changes are part of an even broader pattern, one that has been going on for many years. In 2014, the government introduced a controversial metadata retention scheme, requiring telecommunications companies to store customer metadata for two years and make it available to government agencies without a warrant—a threat to journalist-source confidentiality. The scheme was later amended to include a “journalist information warrant,” requiring agencies to obtain a warrant if data is accessed to identify a journalist’s source, but there’s nothing to stop authorities from fishing around. The Australian government has also been criticized recently, including on Slate, for its increasingly strict national security regulations, including the social media censorship laws it rushed through following the New Zealand terrorist attacks and the restrictions on encryption it passed last year, laws that may affect privacy in the U.S., New America’s director of surveillance policy Sharon Bradford Franklin noted.

Australia has more national security laws than any other nation, writes Rebecca Ananian-Welsh in the Conversation, who links recent changes to “a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.” (Her other research notes that Australia has passed or amended more than 60 anti-terrorism laws since 9/11.) Add in the country’s constrictive defamation laws, considered amongst the most anti-media in the world. (Actor Geoffrey Rush recently won his #MeToo defamation case against News Corp, to the tune of $2.8 million.) And let’s not forget that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, for whom the government has done nothing as he faces extradition to the United States on charges that raise serious concerns about freedom of the press, is an Australian citizen. It’s also difficult to challenge these kind of laws, given that Australia is the only Western nation without a bill of rights, something even former opponents of the idea are now calling for.

Why weren’t we panicking sooner? Some were. Following 2018’s new espionage laws, which many saw as a threat to public interest journalism, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom released a white paper entitled “Press Freedom in Australia,” providing recommendations to strengthen press freedom, including a Media Freedom Act (something activist group Get Up! is now actively petitioning for). But overall, Australians weren’t especially concerned. Compared with Americans, Aussies can be disturbingly apathetic about their civil liberties. Even now, opinion pieces are urging regular Australians to care more, as outraged journalists try to convince the people this “chilling message” is for them too. Maybe these raids will wake Australians up to the fact to how fragile their rights—especially without a bill of rights to protect them—really are.

A movement is brewing in Australia to boycott and change the lyrics of the national anthem, with indigenous Australians—members of the oldest continuous culture on earth—taking issue with the “young” in “for we are young and free.” Perhaps it’s time we started reconsidering the “free” as well.