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Dark days for Australian journalism

  • 07 June 2019


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.

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and dangerous provisions of section 79 of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) dealing with the revealing of official secrets were repealed on 29 June 2018, the publication of Smethurst's story and the Afghan files, as they took place prior to the repeal, have ominous implications.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,