Australian police got journalist's travel records from Qantas, report finds amid fears over press freedoms

A Qantas spokesman said in a statement on Monday that the airline receives numerous requests for information from law enforcement agencies. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (NYTIMES) - Australian federal police obtained the personal travel records of a journalist from Qantas Airways, a revelation that alarmed the media industry on Monday (July 8) after police raids on journalists in June raised questions about press freedoms in the country.

A document obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald showed that police approached the airline in March seeking travel records for a journalist who wrote a 2017 article alleging that the Australian military had committed possible war crimes against Afghan citizens.

A Qantas officer then searched for details of two flights in 2016 at the request of the police, and "captured and printed" details of the trips, the paper said. The request drew sharp criticism from media groups.

"The feeling is that journalism is under attack in this country," said Mr Paul Murphy, chief executive of the Australian union for journalists, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. "There is no regard for the important role journalists play in a functioning democracy."

The incident was another sign that it had become "normal practice" for federal police and law enforcement agencies in Australia to target journalists and whistleblowers, he added.

"We need urgent action from government to protect the right to know," Mr Murphy added.

In a rare instance of unity, media executives from the country's biggest news organisations have called for reforms to protect press freedom after two police raids last month - one on the home of a News Corp journalist and another at the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The journalist whose travel records were obtained, Mr Daniel Oakes, was part of an ABC team that published "The Afghan Files", a 2017 article based on leaked military documents that described potential war crimes by Australian armed forces in Afghanistan.

Last year, the government passed sweeping legislation that included harsher penalties for leaking classified or secret information. The law made it illegal for government officials to disclose such information and in some cases, for journalists to receive it. The alleged whistleblower behind the "Afghan Files" documents, a former military lawyer, has already identified himself and is facing charges.

A spokesman for the federal police declined to comment on Monday on the seizure of the travel records, saying the investigation is continuing.

A Qantas spokesman said in a statement on Monday that the airline receives numerous requests for information from law enforcement agencies. She said the airline is not informed about the occupation of passengers in such requests and provides information only on passengers who are subject to a criminal investigation.

The revelation about the seizure of the travel records coincides with a parliamentary review of laws enacted in 2015 requiring telecommunication companies to retain Internet and phone data for two years for law enforcement to access in criminal investigations.

Documents submitted by the Australian Federal Police show that, under the 2015 laws, the agency obtained two information warrants and accessed the communications data of journalists on 58 occasions in a one-year period ending in June 2018. It is not clear which journalists were targeted, but the documents stoked further concern in the industry about the privacy of sources.

Mr Christian Porter, Australia's attorney general, has said that he is "seriously disinclined" to prosecute journalists except in the most exceptional of circumstances.

Still, there is a "worrying chasm" between the government's actions and its words, said Mr Joseph Fernandez, an associate professor of journalism at Curtin University in Perth.

On an international stage, such police activity is at odds with Australia's reputation for having a transparent democracy and could "embolden other oppressive governments", he said.

"We are seriously undermining our credibility when it comes to upholding basic rights and freedoms," he added.

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