“These raids are about intimidating journalists and media organisations because of their truth-telling," said journalists union MEAA.

By Ian Horswill

Posted on June 5, 2019

Two raids have been carried out on media outlets by Australian government police officers in the past 24 hours over the leaking of information.

The taxpayer-funded national broadcaster ABC had its headquarters in Ultimo, Sydney, raided by Australian Federal Police (AFP) a day after the Canberra home of News Corp Australia’s national political editor Annika Smethurst was also raided by the AFP.

The ABC raid today was in connection with a series of stories, known as The Afghan Files, written in 2017. The stories, by ABC investigative journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, revealed allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. The information was gleaned from hundreds of pages of secret Defence documents that had been leaked to the ABC.

The AFP’s search warrant named Oakes, Clark and the ABC’s director of News, Gaven Morris. Three AFP officers entered the ABC first, followed by three police IT technicians, ABC News reported.

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The AFP, who carried out the raid, told the ABC they wanted to search the email accounts of Oakes, Clark and Morris and were searching “data holdings” between April 2016 and July 2017.

“We are basically discussing a procedure we can all agree on to make this process as painless as possible,” ABC lawyer Michael Rippon said on the AFP raid.

ABC Managing Director David Anderson said it was “highly unusual for the national broadcaster to be raided in this way”.

“This is a serious development and raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and Defence matters,” he said.

“The ABC stands by its journalists, will protect its sources and continue to report without fear or favour on national security and intelligence issues when there is a clear public interest.”

Smethurst’s story, published in April 2018, revealed the Home Affairs and Defence departments were secretly considering giving spy agencies greater surveillance powers. The story included photographs of government documents and alleged that the new powers, if adopted, would go to the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to secretly access bank records, emails and text messages without leaving a trace.

annika smethurst
Annika Smethurst

Federal police officers spent seven hours at Smethurst’s home after she answered a knock on the door and was handed a search warrant by one of the seven officers waiting outside. The officers went through every drawer and cupboard in the house.

The journalists union, the MEAA, was angered by both raids.

“A second day of raids by the Australian Federal Police sets a disturbing pattern of assaults on Australian press freedom. This is nothing short of an attack on the public’s right to know,” said MEAA Media section president Marcus Strom. “Police raiding journalists is becoming normalised and it has to stop.

“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 the government,” he said.

“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.

“Yesterday’s raid was in response to a story published a year ago. Today’s raid comes after a story was published nearly two years ago. Suddenly, just days after a federal election, the Federal Police launches this attack on press freedom. It seems that when the truth embarrasses the government, the result is the Federal Police will come knocking at your door,” Strom said.

“MEAA demands to know who is responsible for ordering these coordinated raids, and why now. We call for the Government and Opposition to take collective responsibility for the legal framework they’ve created that is allowing for what appears to be a politically motivated assault on press freedom,” Strom said.

“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 that the Government and Opposition had a common sense approach to defusing these poisonous laws that are effectively criminalising journalism. This attack on the truth must end.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said from London that “it never troubles me that our laws are being upheld”.