The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has called for an immediate end to the investigation and possible prosecution of ABC journalist Dan Oakes.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has recommended that the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) charge Oakes for publishing information assessed as classified material, but a change to the law last year means the prosecution would have to be approved by Attorney-General Christian Porter.
The AFP has been investigating Oakes and his ABC colleague Sam Clark since they published a series of stories known as the Afghan Files, which alleged Australian Special Forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan, including the unlawful killing of Afghan citizens and the maiming of bodies of dead Taliban fighters.
In response to the news, Oakes tweeted: “Whether or not we are ever charged or convicted over our stories, the most important thing is that those who broke our laws and the laws of armed conflict are held to account. Our nation should be better.”
ABC managing director David Anderson defended Oakes, saying: “The Afghan Files is factual and important reporting which exposed allegations about Australian soldiers committing war crimes in Afghanistan. Its accuracy has never been challenged.
“The ABC fully backs Dan and we will continue to support him however we can. Doing accurate journalism that is clearly in the public interest should not be an offence.”
The investigation led to the AFP’s dramatic raid on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters and the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst last year, which sparked international concern over press freedom in Australia.
Hundreds of witnesses have been interviewed as part of an inquiry by Justice Paul Brereton into allegations Australian troops breached the law. A report, tabled in federal parliament in February, revealed at least 55 incidents are being investigated, “predominantly unlawful killings of persons who were non-combatants or were no longer combatants, but also ‘cruel treatment’ of such persons”.
The inquiry is likely to recommend police investigate at least some of these incidents. But the Brereton report may still be months away.
MEAA Media federal president Marcus Strom said: “It’s three years since the Afghan Files story broke and a year since the AFP raid. And yet, government agencies have moved with greater speed against a whistleblower and a journalist than they have in their investigation into the alleged war crimes.
“The ABC’s journalism clearly embarrassed the government and the Department of Defence because they had classified the war crimes allegations as ‘secret’ so it could be hidden from the public. In fact, the story needed to be told because it was clearly in the public interest. We now know … that there are multiple allegations of war crimes under investigation. And yet it is the truth tellers who face jail time.
“We should never forget that the AFP used a dangerously wide-reaching search warrant when it raided the ABC. It allowed the AFP to ‘add, copy, delete or alter’ material in the ABC’s computers.
“The attorney-general must drop any prosecution of Dan Oakes because the revelations in the Afghan Files have been proved to be in the public interest.”
Oakes himself has highlighted what should be remembered about the revelations in the Afghan Files: “And who knew what? Upper echelons of Defence and intelligence communities are littered with men — always men — who presided over our special forces’ activities in Afghanistan. Do they escape scrutiny while operators are held to account?”
Supporters of media freedom have repeated the longstanding demand by civil liberties campaigners for a national Bill of Rights to enshrine the right of journalists to report on all issues of public interest, without facing criminal investigation or penalties. GetUp! has launched a campaign opposing the charging of Oakes.