New blow to media freedom, whistleblowers

February 19, 2020
With permission of Alan Moir,

Federal Court judge Wendy Abraham’s ruling on February 17 that last year’s Australian Federal Police (AFP) raid on ABC offices in Sydney was legal and that the search warrant was valid is a serious blow to media freedom and the rights of whistleblowers.

The ABC was attempting to block the AFP from keeping documents it had seized on June 5.

ABC news director Gaven Morris called for urgent law reform saying: “For all Australians who are interested in what goes on inside their democracy these sorts of rulings are a blow to the way Australians have access to information.”

ABC managing director David Anderson said the ruling showed the need for explicit protections for public interest journalism and whistleblowers. “This ruling highlights the serious problem with Australia’s secrecy laws,” he said, pointing out that the accuracy of The Afghan Files, which prompted the raid, has never been challenged.

The series of articles by Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, published in 2017, highlighted allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by the 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. Almost three years later, Clark and Oakes await possible criminal charges.

ABC head of investigative journalism John Lyons contrasted the AFP’s treatment of journalists its treatment of federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor, whose case involving the use of an alleged forged document to libel Sydney Mayor Clover Moore “was over within weeks”.

Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance spokesperson Marcus Strom said the AFP warrants used in the ABC raid “underscored the excessive powers that exist in Australia to muzzle the media”.

The fact that police have neither charged nor cleared the ABC journalists or NewsCorp journalist Annika Smethurst after 18 months shows the AFP is being deployed to help suppress media freedom.

The raids form part of a broader federal government attack on the rights of whistleblowers.

Former military lawyer David McBride, the source of the reports that formed the basis of The Afghan Files, is currently facing charges of theft of Commonwealth property, breaching the Defence Act and the unauthorised disclosure of information. If convicted, the 55-year-old could spend the rest of his life in jail.

Last year McBride accused the government of enabling war crimes and seeking to cover up those crimes.

Meanwhile, another whistleblower trial is being heard in secret in the same ACT court complex — that of former Australian secret agent “Witness K” and his lawyer Bernard Collaery. They are being persecuted for blowing the whistle on the Australian government’s bugging of the former Timor-Leste Prime Minister and cabinet offices during negotiations over offshore oil and maritime boundaries.

The government is also refusing to defend the legal rights of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is facing the imminent threat of extradition from Britain to the United States over fabricated charges of violating the US Espionage Act by publishing classified information concerning the US’s Iraq war crimes.

The use of the AFP to crack down on the rights of journalists, along with the government's assault on whistleblowers, is a major civil rights issue. The community has right to know about the crimes and rorts of governments and their state agencies.

As the social and ecological crisis deepens, we need more, not less, media freedom to expose the corruption, political failures and crimes of government.

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