Australia’s Federal Police have raided the offices of the national public broadcaster over a 2017 story based on leaked documents indicating the country’s military were being probed for war crimes in Afghanistan. This second police raid on journalists in as many days has provoked sharp criticism internationally.
At a time when another Australian journalist, Julian Assange, is jailed in the UK facing his potential extradition to the United States on 17 charges under the Espionage Act, the AFP raids highlight an increasingly acute situation for national security journalism, whoever is doing it and wherever they are based.
Police entered the Sydney headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in on June 5, the day after authorities searched the Canberra home of Sunday Telegraph Political Editor Annika Smethurst over her 2018 story revealing a government plan to spy on citizens, outraging journalists and media advocates.
“It is highly unusual for the national broadcaster to be raided in this way,” ABC Managing Director David Anderson said in a statement. “This is a serious development and raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and defense matters.”
The Sydney Morning Herald said the police combed through 10,000 documents projected on a large screen at ABC’s offices and took some away with them on USB sticks.
Three plain-clothes officers and three digital forensics officers were accompanied by ABC lawyers and Executive Editor John Lyons, who live-tweeted the proceedings including photos of police sifting through the ABC’s internal emails.
Lyons said it was a “really serious escalation of the attack on the free media” which had significant consequences for Australian citizens. “It’s not just about the media – it’s about any person out there who wants to tell the media about a bad hospital, or a school that’s not working, or a corrupt local council.”.
News Corp. Australia, the parent company of The Sunday Telegraph, said the raid “demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths.” There were no arrests in either raid.
Australian law forbids officials from disclosing secret information and the police warrants in both raids were based on a law enacted in 1914 but police said they weren’t linked. Anderson said ABC would stand by its journalists and their reporting.
The former Australian military lawyer charged with leaking classified documents in the ABC case said he is facing life imprisonment but that he was acting in the public interest and people’s right to know what their government and military was doing.
CHILLING THE MESSENGER
Due to appear before the Supreme Court on June 13, David William McBride, 55, is charged over alleged leaks to ABC journalists Dan Oakes, Sam Clark and Chris Masters and has pleaded not guilty to counts that include theft and breaching the Defence Act as a military member communicating a plan, document or information.
Reporting on the Afghan Files included allegations of unlawful killings by Australian troops. There has been no response from the government or military about why such information should be protected by official secrecy.
McBride said he gave the documents to ABC but has pleaded not guilty, saying he blew the whistle on what he called an “Instagram war,” in reference to the photo and video sharing site.
“The Defence Force was being misused to carry out operations that were counter productive and costing lives. We were fighting an Instagram war,” he told the site.
The National Press Club of Australia said the two raids could have a chilling effect on the right of journalists “to carry out their jobs to report without fear or favor and to property scrutinize natinal security and defence issues.”
In the Smethurst case, the club said her story reported on federal government plans to spy on citizens and that, “This is within every Australians right to know what new powers the government was exploring, to enable national agencies to surveil.”
It added: “Journalists are bound by their code of ethics to not disclose sources, and to demand they do is asking them to break a covenant recognised the world-over as crucial to uncovering misconduct – when authorities would prefer the public stay in the dark.”
The club said the police and government’s raids “appear calculated to intimidate would-be whistleblowers from coming forward in the public interest and prevent journalists from doing their jobs.”