Around the globe, people are embracing the information age. But in Australia, the Government doesn’t want you to be informed.
In case you missed the media coverage, Australian Federal Police Officers raided the home of a News Corp Journalist and the offices of the ABC this week with warrants relating to published stories which exposed some of the decisions and actions that go on behind the closed doors of government.
The story so far
News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst published a story last year about proposed new powers which would allow some intelligence agencies within the Australian Government to spy on the general public. The story included primary source material including correspondence between politicians.
The ABC raid concerned a series of stories aired in known as the ‘Afghan Files’, which detailed incidents of troops killing unarmed men and children. Officers took away two USB drives containing about 100 files.
In confirming the raid on Ms Smethurst’s home, a statement issued by the AFP alleged the unauthorised disclosure of these specific documents undermined Australia’s national security.’
The decision to raid a journalist’s home over national security reporting is rare but not unprecedented.
In October last year, the AFP raided the Department of Home Affairs in Canberra to establish the source of leaks against Mr Dutton in relation to his ministerial interventions to save several foreign au pairs from deportation.
In April last year, the AFP also raided the home of Tax Office whistle blower Richard Boyle in a warrant that specifically referred to Four Corners and Fairfax reporter Adele Ferguson.
However, what is concerning is the message that the latest raids send to journalists, which is that they can report on anything, unless it contains information which puts the Government in a negative light. And, furthermore, anyone who leaks or publishes classified information can be charged with a criminal offence and sent to prison.
Leaking sensitive government information is a criminal offence
The Government and police already have the power to track down sources they suspect of leaking information to journalists under a provision called the Journalist Information Warrant Scheme within the Data Retention laws. But former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, took a giant leap further, and late last year, introduced a piece of legislation which put into force a range of new laws aimed at countering espionage, treason and foreign interference.
The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018 has since been passed, and it has frightening implications. It creates a series of laws that penalise Commonwealth officers that leak classified information, but also criminalises all the steps that go into reporting such information to the public, and impose serious penalties, in some instances attracting a life sentence.
It has been reported that the raid on Ms Smethurst’s home ‘is part of a criminal investigation’ and the man at the centre of the ABC stories about Afghanistan, former military lawyer David McBride, is due to appear in court in the coming days after allegedly leaking documents to ABC journalists. It has reported that he admits providing the information, and faces up to 50 years behind bars for doing so.
The Government doesn’t want an informed public
Since time began, it has been the role of journalists to report information of interest to society. Independent media is vital for democracy. In this day and age with so much information readily available and the prevalence of ‘fake news’ on the rise, Journalists have a critical role in keeping law enforcement agencies, governments, companies and unscrupulous individuals accountable for their actions.
However, it would seem that in Australia, an informed public is of great to concern to our Government, and therein lies the greater concern for democracy as we know it. Certainly, the actions of the AFP raise serious questions about press freedom. International media outlets have weighed heavily into the debate in the past few days, criticising government interference, the laws which have serious consequences for journalists and their sources, and the overall impact of these on the integrity and independence of news.
Erosion of basic freedoms
Over the past several years the government has introduced a range of laws which impede not just the freedoms of journalists, to report what they believe is in the public interest, but indeed all of us. Usually presented with a lot of rhetoric about protecting ‘national interests’ and ‘public safety’, ordinary Australians have seen significant erosions to our freedom of movement, right to privacy, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
Without a Bill of Rights, there are limited protections in place for Australians’ rights under the law, and no safeguards to ensure that laws and policies are consistent with human rights standards.
While there is a Parliamentary Inquiry into whistleblower protections in the corporate, public and not-for-profit sectors currently underway, no final report has been issued yet.