Australian Federal Police raids on journalists and news outlets are part of a damaging trend of attacks on press freedom and democracy in Australia.
In the last two days, the AFP has raided the home of NewsCorp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC offices in Sydney. In a separate incident, 2GB broadcaster Ben Fordham disclosed that he has also been approached by the Department of Home Affairs to reveal the source of a story about arrival six Sri Lankan boats containing asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia.
Emily Howie, a Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said it’s not yet clear the nature of any charges that might be laid as a result of the investigations, but it appears that both news organisations and whistleblowers could potentially be the targets.
“Attacks on public interest whistleblowers and the free press drive at the heart of our democracy. Governments may be uncomfortable about journalists exposing wrongdoing, but that’s precisely why a free press is absolutely vital,” said Ms Howie.
Last year the government introduced new espionage offences that make it an offence to deal with information that concerns national security if the person intends or is reckless to whether that conduct would prejudice Australia’s national security. The penalties are 25 years (recklessness) to life (intention).
Ms Howie said that raids like these highlight the serious consequences for journalists and whistleblowers speaking out on border protection and national security.
“New espionage laws criminalise journalism and put us all at risk. These raids highlight just how dangerous it has become to reveal information in the public interest if it also touches on anything supposedly linked to national security. It’s outrageous that journalists and their sources could face life imprisonment for revealing information that ultimately protects us all,” said Ms Howie.
"There are insufficient safeguards to prevent law enforcement agencies from using these powers to expose journalists’ confidential sources. This is shocking for those who are targeted but this surveillance also has a chilling effect on people coming forward. We need urgent law reform to stop punitive investigations and instead encourage truth-telling,” said Ms Howie.
“Without a free press, we don't have democracy. We don't know what our government is doing behind closed doors. These people should be lauded for revealing the truth but instead they face the real possibility of prison time,” said Ms Howie.
Michelle Bennett, Communications Director, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519