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AFP raids: An assault on journalistic freedom

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Sun Herald journalist Annika Smethurst's home was raided over a story published last year (Screenshots via YouTube - edited)

Dr Jennifer Wilson looks at some of the repercussions of the journalistic AFP raids from both within and outside the media.

IN APRIL 2018, Sun Herald journalist Annika Smethurst reported that the Australian Signals Directorate (whose somewhat disturbing motto is ‘Reveal their secrets. Protect our own.’) was seeking expanded powers to spy on Australian citizens without their knowledge.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton dismissed Smethurst’s report as nonsense, while in an apparent contradiction of his Minister’s assessment, department head, Mike Pezzullo, immediately referred the “nonsensical” report to the Australian Federal Police for investigation.

On 4 June 2019, some 14 months after Pezzullo referred the matter to police, the AFP conducted a raid on Smethurst's home, armed with warrants to seize her phone and computer. The raid is described as ‘brutish’ by news.com.au political editor, Malcolm Farr, who also demands that whoever ordered it should be held to account.

Interestingly, the raid was on the journalist’s home and not the offices of the Sun Herald. Perhaps raiding the offices of the media company that worked so hard to re-elect the LNP Government is a bridge too far at this time. 

The AFP confirmed the raid in the following statement:

‘The Australian Federal Police (AFP) can confirm it has executed a search warrant at a residence in the ACT suburb of Kingston today.

 

The matter relates to an investigation into the alleged unauthorised disclosure of national security information that was referred to the AFP.

 

Police will allege the unauthorised disclosure of these specific documents undermines Australia’s national security.’

That the AFP took 14 months to act on a matter of national security after a complaint from the head of the Home Affairs department ought to give us pause for speculation as to its motivations.

That the raid took place only a couple of weeks after the Morrison Government gained re-election, having apparently been staved off for 14 months, despite the enormity of the threat to national security, should also give us pause for thought.

While the outrage subsequently expressed by many journalists at this sequence of events is entirely valid, the irony of such outrage ought not to be lost on those outside the profession who have watched with deepening alarm as the LNP Government, with the full co-operation of the Labor opposition, has rushed increasingly draconian surveillance legislation through the Parliament, largely unremarked upon by many in the Fourth Estate.

Indeed, escalating Government surveillance of citizens has frequently been justified by Smethurst’s employer, News Corp Australia, under the over-arching banner of “national security”. 

Where, one wonders, have these outraged journalists been during the passage of this recent legislation, particularly the foreign interference bill passed in June 2108 with amendments by Labor that do little to protect journalists from imprisonment and nothing at all to protect whistle-blowers?

What, one wonders, did journalists imagine the Government was going to do with the 2018 legislation? Apply it to everyone other than themselves?

That so many journalists are outraged and shocked by the Smethurst raid confirms what many of us have long suspected — they are too close to power, believe themselves to be untouchable and are disinclined to give much consideration to the ways in which extreme and unnecessary legislation can affect those not of their profession, including the whistle-blowers they depend on as their sources.

In March 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed astonishment at the Turnbull Government’s ‘anti-democratic slide’, citing “mounting evidence of regressive measures” being pursued by the Government. As an example, the then proposed laws to keep Government information secret and punish whistle-blowers is highlighted. Those proposed laws, with their threats to journalism and its sources, were actualised in June 2018. As noted on Twitter, no media outlet bothered to cover the U.N. report.

Does the industry deserve our sympathy when laws they’ve largely ignored are turned against them?

Let’s not forget as well that several media outlets, including Fairfax, actively collaborated with the LNP Government to dox a Centrelink client who dared to publicly criticise that department. The woman involved did not threaten our national security. She simply went public about her treatment at the hands of a Government agency.

Media outlets showed no compunction in publishing personal information released to them by then Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge. Echoing Malcolm Farr’s reaction to the Smethurst raid, this doxxing was a brutish intervention for which neither Tudge nor the compliant media was ever held to account.

Does the industry deserve our sympathy when the Government finally turns its weapons on them?

News Corp Australia, widely regarded as the propaganda arm of the LNP, yesterday issued a thundering statement defending the public’s ‘right to know’, an attitude that is conspicuously absent from the great majority of News Corp output, unless it concerns the public’s right to know about hapless individuals who fall foul of that organisation, women they don’t like and welfare recipients. For the Murdoch press to take a stand against governmental surveillance is a notable occurrence.

The Australian public’s right to know information about Government laws that could impact their lives is of fundamental importance in our society.

 

This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths. The raid was outrageous and heavy-handed.

 

News Corp Australia has expressed the most serious concerns about the willingness of governments to undermine the Australian public’s right to know about important decisions governments are making that can and will impact ordinary Australian citizens.

 

What’s gone on this morning sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia. This will chill public interest reporting.

It cannot and should not be denied that the AFP raid on a journalist’s home following a complaint made by the head of Home Affairs is a deeply concerning turn of events. That News Corp Australia is the victim of the intervention is proof that, contrary to popular belief, irony is not dead. Having worked so hard to ensure the Morrison Government’s victory on 18 May 2019, it must be rather galling to find oneself the subject of an AFP onslaught. However, the AFP was considerate in focusing its primary attention on the journalist’s home, and not the organisation’s offices.

Many in the media might take this opportunity to quietly contemplate much of the public’s reaction to this assault on journalistic freedom. We have laughed. We have mocked. We have said, with one voice, “it serves you right”. “Why did you think you’d be exempt?” we’ve asked. We’ve said, “you’ve consistently let us down in our expectation that you will do your job of speaking truth to power, and now we don’t care if power comes after you”.

In a country in which the media is doing its job, citizens will defend the Fourth Estate. In Australia, citizens do not generally tend to view the media as our allies. That our first reaction is to guffaw at the AFP raid on a News Corp journalist says everything about the parlous state of relations between much of our media and its consumers. There are a very few notable exceptions. Not enough, sadly, to rescue the reputation of the profession as a whole and ensure our support in its hour of need.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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