Following raids on journalists in San Francisco and Northern Ireland and fears the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could put the clamps on reporters everywhere, Australian authorities searched the home, computer and cellphone of a journalist who had revealed government plans to let intelligence agencies spy on citizens.
Annika Smethurst, political editor for The Sunday Telegraph of Sydney, was in her home in Canberra when Australian Federal Police officers arrived with a warrant to search her house and belongings.
In a statement, police said the warrant was related “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.”
It is believed to be the first time in a decade that a journalist has been targeted in this way, as a battle shapes up in more and more countries between reporters bent on finding the truth and governments anxious to keep what they do under wraps, citing national security as their reason.
The Australian union for journalists, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, called the raid “an outrageous attack on press freedom.” Union President Marcus Strom, in a statement, added that, “Australians are entitled to know what their governments do in their name. That clearly includes plans by government agencies to digitally spy on Australians by hacking into our emails, bank accounts and text messages.”
It is against the law in Australia for government officials to disclose classified or secret information. That allows the police to investigate leaks to journalists, making the public’s right to know a murky area.
The raid prompted outrage from News Corp Australia, publisher of the Sunday Telegraph, which labelled it a “dangerous act of intimidation” targeted at public interest reporting, The Guardian, which has a presence in the country, reported.
In April 2018 Smethurst wrote that the heads of the defence and home affairs ministries had discussed sweeping powers to allow the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on Australian citizens for the first time, stepping up surveillance and forcing journalists to resort to using encrypted methods to protect themselves and sources.
With British officials mulling a so-called Ghost Protocol requiring encrypted services such as WhatsApp to let law enforcement officials secretly snoop on conversations and texts without the users knowing, the Australian scheme Smethurst reported on would let government spies secretly access emails, bank accounts and text messages with approval from the defence and home affairs ministers.
Smethurst wrote that the proposal would allow “cyber spooks to target onshore threats without the country’s top law officer knowing,” and that then-Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo said the powers were needed “to help law enforcement agencies combat “online, cybercrime and cyber-enabled criminal threats facing Australia.”
News Corp. Australia said that Smethurst complied with the warrant but the company called the raid “outrageous and heavy handed.”
“This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths,” the company said in a statement. “What’s gone on this morning sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia. This will chill public interest reporting.”
There is no broad shield law for journalists in Australia as police are allowed to investigate leaks to reporters although courts can decide if the public interest trumps government needs.
Digital Rights Watch chairman, Tim Singleton Norton, said it was “incredibly worrying” to see a raid investigating a public interest issue of “potential massive expansion of domestic capacity in Australian spy agencies”.
“We fear that the powers given to the AFP to seize and search Annika Smethurst’s digital footprint represent a considerable risk to bold Australians who choose to expose wrongdoing in the public services,” he said.