Growing role, powers of Aussie security agencies raise concerns

Police raids of media outlet and journalist's home spark fears over press freedom

Senior ABC journalist John Lyons (wearing glasses) and an Australian Federal Police officer leaving the national broadcaster's building in Sydney following the June 5 raid. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Senior ABC journalist John Lyons (wearing glasses) and an Australian Federal Police officer leaving the national broadcaster's building in Sydney following the June 5 raid. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

On Wednesday last week, police officers entered the main studios of Australia's national broadcaster, ABC, and started accessing thousands of e-mails and other documents belonging to journalists.

During the raid - which was live-tweeted by senior ABC journalist John Lyons - six officers spent nine hours examining 9,214 e-mails and documents based on a warrant which, according to Mr Lyons, "was so broad that there seemed nothing that the AFP (Australian Federal Police) could not seize or take".

Mr Lyons, likening the raid to the dystopian authoritarianism of George Orwell's novel 1984, said the warrant let police delete or alter ABC documents. "Is this what a free press looks like?" he wrote.

Yet this raid was not an isolated incident. Just a day earlier, federal police conducted a separate seven-hour raid at the home of a political print reporter. And a radio journalist revealed that the Department of Home Affairs had warned him he was under investigation and must disclose the name of a source - an order he insisted he would refuse.

These three incidents have raised serious concerns about the growing role and powers of Australia's security agencies. But the authorities have justified the raids as necessary to protect national security.

The ABC raid followed a leak of secret Defence Department documents which led to a series of stories in 2017 about alleged unlawful killings by Australian troops in Afghanistan. But critics such as Mr Lyons said the stories did not endanger anyone's life and were only being investigated because they had embarrassed the government.

The other raid followed a report last year by a News Corp journalist about an alleged secret government plan to allow Australia's cyber security agency to spy on citizens without their knowledge. The government described the report as "nonsense". Yet, more than a year later, police searched the reporter's phone, computer and home, apparently to investigate its source.

These raids saw the normally furiously competitive Australian media outlets unite in condemning the suppression of press freedoms.

ABC chairman Ita Buttrose said the raid was unprecedented and "clearly designed to intimidate".

She said ABC respected national security needs but journalists should be allowed to investigate matters of public interest. "Journalistic endeavours that expose flawed decision-making or matters that policymakers and public servants would simply prefer were secret should not automatically and conveniently be classed as issues of national security," she said.

"The onus must always be on the public's right to know."

Earlier this week, Ms Buttrose met Prime Minister Scott Morrison and raised her concerns.

Mr Morrison said the government was committed to press freedoms but insisted the raids were lawfully done. He said ministers had not instigated them and that they were conducted after senior public servants referred concerns about unlawful conduct - presumably the alleged leaks - to the AFP.

"It's actually up to the federal police as to what actions they take and what investigations they pursue," he told ABC News.

The raids also raised concerns about whether Australia has correctly achieved a balance between protecting national security and allowing a free press. Australia has more security laws than any other democratic country and has passed some 75 national security Bills since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Australia does not have a Bill of rights or an explicit constitutional clause to protect freedom of speech.

Critics say the increase in police and government powers has led to a culture of secrecy and prevented public access to information. Some have called for new laws to protect media freedom or for a parliamentary inquiry into the raids.

"One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism," an expert on national security law, Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, wrote on The Conversation website.

"Sources are less likely to come forward… And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves."

Mr Morrison has said he is open to potential changes to laws to improve press freedoms.

On Thursday, the man accused of leaking the Afghanistan war papers, David McBride, appeared in a court in Canberra and was committed to stand trial on charges including disclosing secret information. Outside the court, he said: "What I did was the patriot duty to stand up for what's right about this country… It's not national security, it's just nationally embarrassing."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2019, with the headline Growing role, powers of Aussie security agencies raise concerns. Subscribe