The Australian government recently carried out two raids targeted at media — one against the national broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and another against a prominent journalist, Annika Smethurst, who is the national politics editor at the Sunday Telegraph. The raid was conducted after the parties published stories that supposedly “tarnished” government’s image. Journalists and free speech activists are outraged that such a crackdown happened in a country that proclaims itself a democracy.
Back in 2017, ABC had run stories that exposed the alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces against Afghan civilians. The secret military documents were leaked to ABC by a former lawyer for the Australian special forces. At least 10 incidents of violence against unarmed adults and children were documented in the files. No one was held accountable for the acts.
Australian police conducted the raid on the argument that ABC had revealed classified material to the public. They seized several documents and gave the network two weeks to appeal the warrant. ABC slammed the government action, saying that it would always stand by its journalists. “This is a serious development and raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and defense matters… ABC stands by its journalists, will protect its sources, and continue to report without fear or favor on national security and intelligence issues when there is a clear public interest,” David Anderson, ABC Managing Director, said to CNN.
Annika’s home was searched by authorities after she reported last year that the Australian government was considering secretly monitoring citizens. Police say that Annika had committed a crime by disclosing “national security” information. But the argument is obviously baseless. If warning citizens that they might be covertly monitored by the state is against national security, it is the government that has actually become a security threat.
No more free press?
Last year, Australia passed the Espionage and Foreign Interference (EFI) Act, which contained several secrecy offenses. The provisions in the law allow the government to criminalize the activities of journalists and whistleblowers who expose things like war crimes and human rights violations carried out by the state. The National Press Club of Australia said that the government intimidation of whistleblowers would be against the public’s interest and that the state seems intent on preventing journalists from doing their job. Workers at the ABC office were outraged by police behavior in the recent raid.
“It’s 1984 all over again. It’s a very Orwellian move and terrifying to see what comes next. It’s concerning. I was shocked. I was here, and I didn’t know what to expect, because I read it on the news and I was very surprised that this was happening… The legislation was brought in last year, and now they’re acting on it retrospectively. They are bringing in lots of these laws, while people are not noticing, because other things are going on. So it’s a bit scary. And the government is so completely involved. Their denial is ridiculous,” an ABC worker said in a statement (WSWS).
Kristina Keneally, opposition home affairs spokeswoman, has demanded that a bipartisan Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security be set up to look at whether the country’s press freedom is being threatened by the government’s policies on national security. Unlike the United States, Australia does not have any law similar to the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech.