AFP raids: a grave threat to media freedom

June 5, 2019
The Australian Federal Police marching into the ABC on June 5. Photo: ABC

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on senior mainstream media journalists over June 4–5 have reignited calls to allow journalists to do their job, for an end of their intimidation and for an investigation into media freedoms.

On June 4, police raided the Canberra home of journalist Annika Smethurst, who has written on cyber security threats and the federal government’s plan to allow spying on Australian citizens to “proactively disrupt and covertly remove” onshore cyber threats. That piece was published in April last year.

On June 5, the AFP marched into the ABC offices in Sydney with warrants to search those associated with publishing a series of stories in 2017, known as The Afghan Files. The pieces by Dan Oakes and Sam Clark highlighted allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian’s elite Special Air Service forces in Afghanistan. They were based on hundreds of pages of “classified” Department of Defence documents that were leaked to the ABC that year.

In addition, the ABC revealed this week that the Adani Group lent on the broadcaster’s management to not air a story by award-winning journalist Isobel Roe on Saturday AM about the numbers not adding up for the coal corporation.

Right-wing 2GB broadcaster and Sky News contributor Ben Fordham also revealed on June 4 that he was made aware the AFP considered him a “person of interest” after he reported six asylum seeker boats had been attempting to reach Australia and had come quite close. He said he had been contacted by the Department of Home Affairs and was told Home Affairs had initiated an investigation that could lead to an AFP criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, the British and US governments are trying everything they can to criminalise Julian Assange for publishing leaked government files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For many, this was the first time the occupation forces’ carnage impinged on their worlds, given how wars are now fought remotely and with “precision” with the media coverage stage managed.

Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) president Marcus Strom condemned the raids as an attempt to “criminalise journalism”. He told Green Left Weekly the raids would have been “a long time in the planning” and “the elections being over meant that the department could just go for it”.

“These raids are about intimidating journalists and media organisations because of their truth-telling. They are about more than hunting down whistleblowers that reveal what governments are secretly doing in our name, but also preventing the media from shining a light on the actions of government,” Strom said in a media release on June 5.

“It is equally clear that the spate of national security laws passed by the Parliament over the past six years have been designed not just to combat terrorism but to persecute and prosecute whistleblowers who seek to expose wrongdoing. These laws seek to muzzle the media and criminalise legitimate journalism. They seek to punish those that tell Australians the truth.”

The MEAA is calling on the government and opposition to “take collective responsibility for the legal framework they’ve created that is allowing for what appears to be politically motivated assault on press freedom”.

“For years the Liberal and Labor parties have engaged in a high-stakes game of bluff which has seen the introduction of anti-democratic laws in the guise of national security legislation. It is time the government and opposition had a common sense approach to defusing these poisonous laws that are effectively criminalising journalism.”

In a bizarre but welcome twist, the chief of ABC News John Lyons was live tweeting the raid from inside the ABC studios. He reported the AFP was after one individual — a whistleblower — who he would not name.

The AFP wants to find the ABC’s sources for The Afghan Files reports which in 2017 bought home Australia’s complicity in the US-led war on Afghanistan and the far-from-saviour-like behaviour of its Special Forces troops.

Dan Oakes and Sam Clark’s reports detailed special forces’ officers carrying out atrocities on unarmed civilians, including children. They also detailed how these same officers absolved themselves of any responsibility for distinguishing between civilians and combatants, underscoring the sort of impunity that prevailed.

The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act, passed with bipartisan support in June last year, is one of the newest pieces of “anti-terror” legislation. Fourteen media outlets, among others, strongly objected to the bill, at its committee stage, for its ability to jail journalists and whistleblowers for up to 25 years for “espionage”. This is a tenfold increase in the maximum penalty for anyone who communicates or “deals with information or an article” that could potentially “cause harm to Australia’s interests”.

Of course, how the Department of Home Affairs judges “Australia’s interests” goes to the heart of the matter.

Michael Pezzullo, the current head of the Department of Home Affairs, would take a very different view to many Australians, particularly those who opposed and still oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanitan. Pezzullo was the former Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service from February 2013 and before that worked for Labor’s foreign minister Gareth Evans and then-Opposition leader Kim Beazley. He authored the 2009 Defence White Paper, commissioned by Kevin Rudd’s government, which outlined a strengthened Australia-US alliance for the 21st Century.

Ironically, the heavy-handed raids on the tame pro-government media and others may serve to unite those with an interest in protecting media freedoms and bringing information to the public that the government may not want it to know.

In these days when investigative journalism is shrinking and news outlets rely on whistleblowers and independent sources to leak information the government is seeking to hide based on its view of our “national interest”, it is critical that the protests against these raids and the intimidation of journalists continues.

We have a right to know what the government is doing in our name; we also need to demand the repeal of the anti-terror laws that criminalise journalists and whistleblowers.

As investigative journalist John Martinkus said during the AFP raid on the ABC: “A journalist’s job is to publish the truth and if that comes from classified documents that are presented to them then they are obligated to pass that information on to the public.”

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