Sydney―Australia’s democratic credentials have been called into question following police raids on major media organizations this week, sparking urgent calls for greater protection of journalists and their sources.
Police searched the home of a prominent Canberra journalist on Tuesday, hunting for information linked to a story she wrote last year on secret government plans to spy on Australian citizens.
The following day they raided the headquarters of the country’s venerable national broadcaster, the ABC.
Agents spent eight hours trawling through emails, article drafts and journalist notes relating to an investigative report that showed Australian special forces had killed unarmed civilians in Afghanistan.
They walked away with scores of documents on two USB sticks, sparking a political uproar and accusations that eroding government accountability had reached a tipping point.
“It’s revealing that Australia is one of the most―if not the most―secretive administrations of the democratic world,” Peter Manning, an adjunct professor at the University of Technology Sydney, told AFP.
He said the government was able to avoid transparency to an extraordinary degree using a build-up of more than 50 laws or amendments related to privacy, national security and counter-terrorism introduced since 2001.
“That is not democracy. That is an authoritarian state choosing which implement they will use to bastardize the media and bring them to heel,” said Manning, the former head of ABC’s flagship News and Current Affairs division.
Elsewhere the raids drew international news coverage and were roundly condemned by press freedom and civil liberties groups.
“Straight from the playbook of authoritarian thugs,” decried an editorial in The New York Times.
“It is a danger to democracy when professional news reporting is at risk of being criminalized,” said Michael Miller, chairman of the Australian operations of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which was targeted in the first raid.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose conservative government has implemented a series of controversial law-and-order measures in recent months, insisted there was no political involvement in the police investigation.
“My government is absolutely committed to freedom of the press,” he told reporters Thursday.
Opposition politicians condemned the raids as “the first step on a slippery slope” to losing press freedom, and noted that they came just weeks after Morrison’s government defied opinion polls to win reelection.
The head of the federal police held an extraordinary press conference Thursday to deny any political involvement.
“Both of these investigations relate to national security information, how it was handled, and who had access to it,” acting police commissioner Neil Gaughan told reporters.
He also refused to rule out prosecuting reporters and publishers who disclosed classified information to the public.
Ita Buttrose, a veteran journalist recently appointed by Morrison’s government to lead the ABC, dismissed claims the raids were apolitical.
She said the “unprecedented” police operations were “clearly designed to intimidate”.
“Raids on two separate media outfits on consecutive days is a blunt signal of adverse consequences for news organisations who make life uncomfortable for policy makers and regulators,” Buttrose said.
Unlike many western countries, Australia does not have a bill of rights or a constitutionally enshrined protection for freedom of speech.
The police warrants issued for the raids were based on 1914 legislation designed to deal with World War I-era concerns over German espionage.
“It’s incredibly embarrassing. Australia is again leading the hunt for killing messengers.” Monash University Journalism Professor Johan Lidberg told AFP.
The raids sent a “chilling message to future whistle blowers and journalists” covering national security and terror-related matters, he added.
The Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom have recommended legislation to counter the absence of constitutional protection.
The advocacy group says the proposed law would “recognize the importance” of national security and government employee protection, while allowing journalists to investigate misconduct.
“More than simply making reporting ‘in the public interest’ a defense, it would make it an exception from prosecution,” alliance founder Peter Greste said.
“The onus would be on the security agencies to show that the exception of ‘public interest reporting’ does not apply, before charges are laid.”