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Dark days for Australian journalism



On the morning of 4 June, News Corp journalist and political editor Annika Smethurst was preparing to leave for work when she was met by the Australian Federal Police brandishing a warrant.

Acting AFP Commissioner Neil Gaughan speaks to the media on 6 June 2019 in Canberra following the raids on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and on the ABC's head offices in Sydney. (Getty Images)A statement from the AFP subsequently confirmed that it had 'executed a search warrant at a residence in the ACT suburb of Kingston' on a matter relating 'to an investigation into the alleged unauthorised disclosure of national security information that was referred to the AFP'. The AFP 'will allege the unauthorised disclosure of these specific documents undermines Australia's security'. Some hours later, the AFP confirmed that, 'This warrant relates to the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret, which is an extremely serious matter with the potential to undermine Australia's national security.'

The story supposedly linked to the AFP warrant had been published by Smethurst on 29 April 2018. The story titled 'Let us spy on Aussies' detailed discussions between Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo and Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty on the possibility of granting the Australian Signals Directorate expansive powers to monitor the emails, bank records and text messages of Australian citizens.

Within hours of the raid on Smethurst's home, radio 2GB Drive presenter Ben Fordham told listeners he had been the subject of interest from the Home Affairs department after discussing the attempt on the part of six asylum seeker boats to reach Australia. Fordham's producer was reprimanded by a Home Affairs official for allowing the discussion of 'highly confidential' material. 'In other words,' explained Fordham, 'we weren't supposed to know about it.'

That was not the end of it. An incident was unfolding at the Sydney offices of the national broadcaster that Wednesday morning. The AFP had executed another warrant naming ABC investigative journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, along with ABC director of news Gaven Morris, all linked to the publication of the the Afghan files, a set of stories in 2017 revealing allegations of unlawful killings by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.

While the dusty and dangerous provisions of section 79 of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) dealing with the revealing of official secrets were repealed on 29 June 2018, the publication of Smethurst's story and the Afghan files, as they took place prior to the repeal, have ominous implications. The public interest defence appended to the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign) Interference Act 2018 protecting those 'engaged in the business of reporting news, presenting current affairs or expressing editorial or other content in news media' discussing 'inherently harmful information' do not apply.

For those keen on the details of what might be regarded as 'inherently harmful information', the following definition is supplied in the amending act: security classified information; information obtained by, or made by or on behalf of, a domestic intelligence agency or a foreign intelligence agency in connection with the agency's functions; or information on 'the operations, capabilities or technologies of, or methods or sources used by, a domestic or foreign law enforcement agency'.


"Another troubling conclusion presents itself: a national security mentality gone rogue, conducting its affairs in the dark."


In a sense, the point is a moot one. Even if the 2018 amendments had applied, the unfortunate whistleblowers in question would not be able to rely on its protections. The Law Council president Arthur Moses accurately notes that the protection offered in the amended provisions is an illusion, nothing short of a 'mirage because it does not cover a journalist's source'. The Law Council's efforts to convince the federal government to extend the public interest defence to suppliers of the information was purposely rejected, making sources in either the Afghan files case, or that of Smethurst, vulnerable. This, in short, is a campaign to target the source.

These events did not seem to trouble Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who claimed that 'it never troubles me that our laws are being upheld'. But what should be troubling is the admission on the part of both Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton that such high-profile raids were in the works, the result of independent investigations.

This raises two points: not knowing the operations of the police and the defence department gives the appearance of impartiality. But it also suggests the opposite: those in power knew that such operations would be instigated, and duly permitted such actions in the name of broader security objectives. If not, another troubling conclusion presents itself: a national security mentality gone rogue, conducting its affairs in the dark.

The implications of these raids, more broadly speaking, lie beyond the immediate acts. Chris Merritt, legal affairs editor of The Australian, saw the raid as the most dangerous of precedents. 'Welcome to modern Australia — a nation where police raid journalists in order to track down and punish the exposure of leaks inside the federal government.'

But Merritt, along with his colleagues, has been asleep at the wheel. The gradual additions to Australia's national security framework, in the absence of an entrenched constitutional right protecting the press, has made the conditions ripe for such raids. As the independent MP Andrew Wilkie warns, such matters all begin incrementally: a new law here, a police raid there; then 'one day you wake up and we look like East Germany'.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Acting AFP Commissioner Neil Gaughan speaks to the media on 6 June 2019 in Canberra following the raids on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and on the ABC's head offices in Sydney. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, News Corp, Annika Smethurst, Australian Federal Police, ABC, Afghan Files



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Existing comments

Australia needs better laws to protect journalists and their sources. Otherwise potential whistle-blowers will be reluctant to blow the whistle, to the detriment of our democracy! Do we want to end up like China, where the Tienanmen Square student massacre has been so hushed up that most Chinese citizens haven't even heard of it, and those who have are too afraid to talk about it?

Grant Allen | 08 June 2019  

the issue of investigations is a vexed one.. If there is any laxity in security the alarm bells would be ringing loudly and there would be censure of the govt as well as the AFP. for not being alert enough to our national security, and, that we are no longer safe At the present time we are hearing that situation is alarmist about privacy and a police state. Mark Dreyfus some moments ago was wanting an investigation by the AFP into an issue, is he now protesting seen as an each way bet or not, relating to police investigation A lot of AFP work is I understand has to be done with a measure of secrecy and confidentiality

mick jones | 09 June 2019  

Not just a dark day for journalism, but one. For DEMOCRACY in our land. What can we do, where can we go! So any good people do not see anything wrong with this situation! Speaking loudly and clearly is more important than ever.

Margaret Lamb | 10 June 2019  

Coming soon after the election, its difficult to escape the political implications of these gross overreaches by the Government. If the ALP had not also been napping behind the wheel, this would have been a major election issue. Complacency appears to have taken over the electorate, with no ground swell against security over reach, climate and environmental degradation, and neglecting the well being of the neediest. Now, how do we work for constitutional civil rights, a sustainable carbon and environmental policy and the commonweal ? Surely, after an election result which ignored so much of our future, it must be time for a nation wide public reawakening, which ignores the spin, points scoring and media noise in which we have allowed ourselves to be entrapped and silenced. The rallying point for this national revival could be a purposeful , steady movement to a republic, with new laws befitting a commonwealth republic. Its not impossible, only difficult. However sitting writing or reading this is not the commitment or work it will require.

jpb | 10 June 2019  

A transparent and open government is a utopian concept given that a cold war between superpowers still exists and there is terrorism seeking soft targets in western democracies. Information that is classified by government and military is done so to preserve national security. Operatives can be exposed and assassinated and governments can be rolled if this information gets into the wrong hands. Journalists should be aware of the penalties pertaining to the leaking of this information and take responsibility for their actions.

Viktor Hewbert | 10 June 2019  

Further proof of the need for a federal bill of rights. Journalist have ignored this need and now have concerns because they are in the foreign line. Who has betrayed who.

Edward M | 10 June 2019  

I totally agree with you Binoy. Having experienced a case of 'over reach' when leaving the Philippines during the the time of Marcos (1983) , my only 'offense' being attendance at a conference at a College in the Northern Philippines where I talked with students and faculty staff . I was a teacher myself at the time. The questions asked by the men in dark suits at MIA seemed to relate to my dislike of Marcos and his cronies and my alleged comments. ( Actually I stayed right out of local politics while there.) These recent events fill me with concern as to the motives of the organisers of the raids who do not have to justify their reasons- even to Parliament! Even more concerning is the lack of public response to the raids. It is very interesting to contrast the Australian public's response to the raids by the AFP that of the population in Hong Kong who are risking brute force, reminiscent of the Tiernan Square massacre in Beijing, to assert their rights. We really need to wake out of our slumber Australia!

Gavin O'Brien | 10 June 2019  

Its a vexed Issue Binoy. Using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Of course it probably takes the attention away from the LNP ostrich heads buried in the sand environmental issues, the complete idiocy of having a bloated Monarch as head of state whose crown jewels alone could solve the entire homeless situation in Australia, and justice for Aboriginals. And a posturing Dutton yelping about boat arrivals and the money he is wasting on security for Manus and Nauru. As if it mattered whether someone came by boat, plane, container in a Chinese vessel, or jumped ship from a Chinese/Indonesian/USA/British military vessel, or overstayed a visa. Turn back the boats / offshore internment is a racist policy that disadvantages certain Nationalities in favour of richer nations / students. None of which the Government gives a tinker's curse about. jpb you are dead right. Its time we moved to adopt a mature Republic with a bill of rights and time SCOMO answered some tough questions for a change.

Francis Armstrong | 10 June 2019  

Thank you for this very relevant article, Binoy. The attempts by our leaders to intimidate journalists and whistle blowers is very concerning. And I agree with Margaret Lamb that it is also an attack on democracy. Julian Assange exposed the war crimes and corruption of the US and other governments so when the US and its allies have been trying to punish him, the two major political parties in Australia have refused to lift a finger to demand that his rights be protected. In addition, Witness K and Bernard Collaery - two Australians who assisted the East Timorese, the poorest nation in SE Asia, from being ripped off by Australia could be facing imprisonment. It seems that our leaders want to punish them for taking the moral high ground. Penny Wong, the leader of the ALP in the Australian Senate when approached by Dr Richie Gun, a former MHR for Kingston (SA), about the case she said that she could do nothing for them as it was a matter of Australia's security. We all know that this is totally untrue. Some of our leaders think they can justify some of their worst actions by claiming that they did it in Australia's national interest or security. Grant Allen is correct we do need better laws to protect journalists and whistle blowers to maintain a healthy democracy and to protect the human rights of those who are being targetted by our politicians.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 12 June 2019  

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