Raids on Australian journalists who reported government plans to spy on citizens and alleged killings of unarmed people in Afghanistan by Australia’s military could land reporters in jail, with police broadening the scope of their investigations.
The journalists could be charged with holding classified information, including that provided by David McBride, a whistleblowing former military lawyer. He is charged over the alleged leaks to Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) journalists Dan Oakes, Sam Clark and Chris Masters. He has pleaded not guilty, but could face life if convicted.
The raid of public broadcaster ABC’s headquarters came a day after the Australian Federal Police (AFP) searched the Canberra home, computer and cellphone of Sunday Telegraph of Sydney Political Editor Annika Smethurst, who had reported on government plans to expand the scope of surveillance to Australian citizens for the first time.
Police claimed the raids were not related to each other, or to the change of government in Canberra. Nevertheless the searches drew scathing criticism from media organisations and press freedom groups around the world.
After first saying the raids were aimed at probing alleged crimes of leaking classified information, suggesting journalists wouldn’t be targeted, police changed a statement on their website to include the possible crimes of receiving national secrets.
The stories were based on hundreds of pages of secret Defence Force documents leaked to the ABC which suggested Australian special military troops had allegedly committed war crimes in Afghanistan involving the killing children and other civilians.
In the Smethurst case, News Corp said the raid was over her article about plans to spy on Australians’ emails, text messages and bank accounts. At ABC headquarters, where officials live-tweeted the police sweep, it was reported that some 9,000 computer files were examined.
The BBC, joining widespread criticism, said the police action was “deeply troubling,” and the left-leaning Green Party, an influential bloc in the Senate, asked for an inquiry.
“The raids this week highlight just how dangerous it is to expose government wrongdoing in Australia,” said Emily Howie, a legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre. “Espionage offences should protect Australians from grave harm, instead they go too far and criminalize public interest journalism and brave whistleblowers,” she told Reuters.
Acting police commissioner Neil Gaughan defended the raids and said there might be more, unapologetic. “I reject the allegation … that we are trying to intimidate journalists,” he said.
“I’m not going to rule in or rule out anyone being subject to further charges. We haven’t made a decision, one way or the other,” he said when asked if journalists could be charged as part of the investigation.