One of the most common phrases associated with a democratic society is the right to “freedom of speech” but the recent police raids on journalists by Australian authorities are proving the dangers of doing just that.
ABC’s Sydney headquarters are the latest target in the government’s war on whistleblowers, with Australian Federal Police officers entering the building late Wednesday morning to obtain information relating to a warrant naming news director Gaven Morris and reporters Dan Oakes and Sam Clark.
The raid comes a day after the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst in Canberra under a separate investigation.
It also follows ex-defence lawyer and whistleblower David McBride being committed to stand trial in the ACT Supreme Court over charges relating to the leak of sensitive documents to the ABC.
ABC managing director David Anderson said it was “highly unusual” for the national broadcaster to be raided, describing it as a “serious development” that “raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny and defence matters”.
It’s a pretty concerning situation not only for journalists but the Australian public as a whole.
In the public eye, journalists are up there among lawyers and car salesmen as some of the least trusted professions but without media, who keeps politicians and people in positions of power in check?
How will the public be informed of crime, corruption, inconsistencies and injustice?
Will we be content with clickbait journalism and collations of twitter memes without knowing what’s really going on outside our bubble or striving to improve on the world we live in?
ABC raided over ‘Afghan Files’
The raids on the ABC were in relation to a 2017 documentary series The Afghan Files, which the broadcaster claims are based on leaked defence documents and revealed alleged incidences of Australian troops killing unarmed men and children.
ABC news director Gaven Morris and one of three staff named in the federal police warrant said “journalism is not a crime”, adding that the two others – reporters Dan Oakes and Sam Clark – were some of ABC’s finest journalists.
“Honest and committed to telling the truth in the Australian public’s interests,” he said in a tweet on Wednesday.
Mr McBride, a former military lawyer and captain in Britain’s elite Special Air Service, is at the heart of the raids as he is the one believed to have leaked the material to the broadcaster.
Mr McBride is being accused of theft of Commonwealth property and three counts of breaching the Defence Act. He is also charged under old secrecy provisions in the Commonwealth Crimes Act.
While he has not denied passing on information, Mr McBride has pleaded not guilty to all charges and plans to defend the charge on legal grounds.
Annika Smethurst’s home raided
The AFP’s raid on Ms Smethurst’s home, including her mobile phone and computer, was linked to an article she wrote in April 2018 containing images of a “top secret” memo and reportedly outlined a plan by senior government officials to allow government spying on Australians to remove onshore cyber threats.
Her story alleged the proposal would give the cyber spy agency the power to monitor emails, bank accounts and text messages of Australian citizens.
Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesman for criminal justice Greg Barns told reporters that Ms Smethurst’s story was “clearly within the public interest”.
“This intimidating behaviour by the police poses a serious risk to our democracy and undermines the accountability of the government to the people that it serves,” Mr Barns was quoted as saying by News Corp.
Ben Fordham targeted over confidential information
Radio broadcaster Ben Fordham also revealed he is being targeted for his report earlier this week on six asylum seeker boats attempting to reach Australia.
According to Mr Fordham, his producer was contacted by the Home Affairs office an hour after the report went to air warning that the material was “highly confidential”.
He also claims “senior officials” informed him that an investigation has been initiated by the department which could lead to an AFP criminal investigation.
“There is not a hope in hell of me revealing my sources. I work in a business that’s based on freedom of the press,” he tweeted following the incident.
Julian Assange offered no support
If it wasn’t for Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, the public would not have seen the war crimes being committed in Iraq by the United States via the infamous ‘collateral murder’ video.
The reward for revealing this truth to the public was solitary confinement, being locked up in an embassy for seven years and now facing 175 years in prison with zero support from the Australian Government.
In return, those that committed the war crimes along with the politicians from various nations that called for war are free to carry on living their lives, even though it was well known at the time and following that the wars in the middle east were based on lies and had nothing to do with ‘fighting terrorism’.
It should be noted that WikiLeaks is the only major news organisation in the world with a 100% track record of never having to correct details or retract a story, and has uncovered some of the most important pieces of information in modern history.
The war on whistleblowers was ramped up when former CIA employee Edward Snowden in 2013 exposed major illegalities of the intelligence organisation, which is also tied to the Five Eyes network that Australia is a part of.
This crackdown on press freedom occurred during the Obama administration that went after journalists and leakers at unprecedented levels, of which it seems Australia is now carrying the torch forward with.
The major takeaways from Snowden’s leaks were that the spying apparatus was being set up to spy on regular citizens, foreign governments and used for commercial gain of large corporations, some of which is similar to what News Corp’s Annika Smethurst was looking to expose.
The excuse offered by governments and their relevant spy agencies is that we’re being spied on for our safety, however fewer people are buying this line anymore.
Does Australia have free press?
In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone is entitled to “hold opinions without interference” and that freedom of expression and opinion, including the right to access information, are the foundation stones for a free and democratic society.
This implies a free press with media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint.
But according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian Constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of expression.
However, the High Court has ruled that ‘freedom of political communication’ is an indispensable part of the system of representative and responsible government created by the Constitution, with the government generally expected to respect this principle.
In other words – no, we technically don’t have the right to free press that a democratic society is supposed to have, and that’s why journalists that expose injustices face the threat of being punished for it.
What politicians are saying
Of course, this is a great excuse for Labor to unleash on the reigning government after its surprising federal election loss last month, with shadow spokeswoman for home affairs Kristina Keneally saying that while Labor takes Australia’s national security seriously, it also believes “media freedom is at the core of our democratic society”.
“Labor has requested a briefing through the Home Affairs Minister’s office to seek to understand why raids of such nature are warranted,” Ms Keneally said.
“Protecting our national security is complex work, but it always must have the right checks and balances,” she added.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton released a statement later in the day saying he is aware the AFP executed search warrants “in relation to two separate investigations” but that the AFP “conduct their investigations and carry out their operations independent from the government”.
“The AFP have an important job to undertake and it is entirely appropriate they conduct their investigations independently and, in fact, it is their statutory obligation,” Mr Dutton said.
Meanwhile, when asked by Mr Fordham whether he had advance knowledge of Wednesday’s raid on the ABC, Prime Minister Scott Morrison reportedly said, “of course not”.
However, he defended the AFP’s search of Smethurst’s home earlier in the week, arguing that all Australians must abide by national security laws.
“Australia believes strongly in the freedom of the press and we have clear rules and protections for freedom of the press,” Mr Morrison told reporters.
“There are also clear rules protecting Australia’s national security and everybody should operate in accordance with all of those laws passed by our Parliament,” he added.
The raids are undoubtedly being used to send a message to other investigative journalists, who are already a dying breed, that if they dare expose corruption of those in power it will be met swiftly with an iron fist approach that not even George Orwell could have envisioned.
Without freedom of the press, we can no longer claim to live in a free country.