Statement regarding Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on Australian media

By JERAA Executive, and Johan Lidberg, Monash University 

 

The last few days have been very dark for press freedom and independent journalism in Australia. The JERAA executive condemns in the strongest possible terms the extremely heavy-handed approach displayed by the Australian Federal Police. Within 24 hours the AFP raided the home of award-winning News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and then the ABC headquarters in Sydney. Journalist Ben Fordham was also questioned by the Dept of Home Affairs about the source of his recent story on asylum seekers, and warned that he has published potentially confidential information that he should not possess.

The JERAA executive fully supports and stands by Ms Smethurst, the ABC reporters and producers and 2GB journalist, Ben Fordham. Common to all these journalists is the fact that they were practising public interest journalism.

JERAA members have noted in their research that Australian governments from both sides of politics have been keen to pass or amend anti-terror/national security legislation (60 plus laws since September 11, 2001), which has laid the foundation for the legal intimidation we have witnessed in the last few days.

These laws, in combination with the draconian sections in our criminal codes limiting public servants’ ability to communicate maladministration and corruption to journalists, has created serious challenges for whistle blowers and journalists. We now have a situation where whistle blowers are pursued instead of thanked for their bravery. The federal Australian government has increased its attempts to ‘kill the messengers’, instead of dealing with the problems the messengers point out.

This sort of behaviour from authorities is not worthy of a mature liberal democracy and is an international embarrassment for Australia. The JERAA executive notes that JERAA members have been contacted by reporters from international news organisation seeking their expert comments on the raids. These news organisations have expressed disbelief that such raids on public interest journalism can take place in a long-standing liberal democracy. The Columbia Journalism Review news editor Jon Allsop has noted that “[r]aiding a newsroom, setting up camp there, and combing through its internal files—with the right to edit and delete them—is the sort of thing that happens in a police state, not an established democracy”.

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton and Attorney General Christian Porter have a lot of questions to answer in the next few days. One of the crucial ones is – why was the ABC search warrant so incredibly broad, allowing AFP staff to not only access the ABC systems, but also to delete and add information in the ABC’s systems?

The state of exception and paradigm of fear now appears to be the norm in Australia. This will not reflect well on Australia’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index next year, and raises questions about the future of public interest journalism, only a year after the Federal government concluded an inquiry into its health.

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