The Australian Federal Police carried our two separate raids on the ABC and News Corp last week, reigniting debate around the freedom of the press in democratic countries such as Australia.
On June 4, AFP officers searched the ACT home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst regarding a 2018 article that investigated an alleged government proposal to spy on Australians.
The following day, AFP personnel entered the ABC headquarters in Ultimo, this time in relation to a 2017 story about alleged war crimes carried out by Australian defence officers in Afghanistan.
The AFP cited national security threats as justification for the raids in a press release on its website:
“Both [incidents] relate to separate allegations of publishing classified material, contrary to provisions of the Crimes Act 1914, which is an extremely serious matter that has the potential to undermine Australia’s national security.”
Acting AFP commissioner Neil Gaughan told journalists, “I reject the claim over the last few days we’re trying to intimidate journalists or conduct a campaign against the media.”
Image credit: David Gray/AAP via The Guardian
How news media publishers responded
Michael Miller, executive chairman of News Corp Australasia and board member of NewsMediaWorks, condemned the raids.
“The raid was unequivocal intimidation. It was an affront to press freedom and demonstrated an alarming escalation to silence those who publish truths the government does not want made public.”
NewsCorp’s The Australian published an editorial defending Australia’s free press and the public’s “right to know”:
“Australians deserve better than laws that prohibit journalists from keeping them abreast of matters they are entitled to know about.”
The Sydney Morning Herald ran an article featuring comments by lawyer and commercial director at Seven West Media, Bruce McWilliam, who criticised the “unlimited and dangerously wide power” of past and current governments in Australia.
McWilliam highlighted several policy decisions that he found concerning, including the Abbott government’s change granting police authority to obtain journalists’ metadata.
The Herald also ran an editorial asserting the media’s “public-interest duty to report truthfully, responsibly and without fear or favour.”
“These raids appear a clear warning to both whistleblowers and journalists that leaking and exposing those leaks can have dire consequences.”
Mark Riley of The West Australian wrote that Australia’s national security laws were “being weaponised to intimidate journalists and their sources to discourage future leaks and protect the government from further embarrassment.”
The Guardian ran an opinion piece by senior university lecturer Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, who argued that Australian press freedom “needs better protection.”
“In an age of fake news and in the only country where the courts are cut out of rights protection, the role of a robust, informed, independent press cannot be overstated.”
The Courier Mail’s David Speers described the raids as an “overzealous crackdown on the Australian media” and emphasised the need for the government to safeguard “the freedoms that underpin our democracy.”