Press freedom under police attack – Democracy Now! probes ABC raid


Press freedom groups are sounding the alarm over a pair of police raids on journalists in Australia. Video: Democracy Now!

By Democracy Now!

Press freedom groups are sounding the alarm over a pair of police raids on journalists. Last week, Australian Federal Police swept into the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney, reviewing thousands of documents for information about a 2017 report The Afghan Files that found Australian special forces soldiers may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Files
The Afghan Files … How the ABC reported a “Defence leak exposing deadly secrets of Australia’s special forces” in 2017. Image: Screen shot of ABC/PMC

The raid came on Wednesday, one day after police in Melbourne raided the home of Annika Smethurst, a reporter with the Herald Sun newspaper.

Democracy Now! speaks to Australian journalism professor Joseph Fernandez – correspondent of Reporters Without Borders and Pacific Journalism Review – and Peter Greste, founding director of the Brisbane-based Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom.

Greste was imprisoned for 400 days in 2013 to 2014 while covering the political crisis in Egypt.

READ MORE: Asia Pacific Report stories on the police ABC raids

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Press freedom groups in Australia are sounding the alarm over a pair of police raids on journalists. On Wednesday last week, Australian Federal Police swept into the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney, reviewing thousands of documents for information about a 2017 report that found Australian special forces may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

ABC investigations executive editor John Lyons spoke on his own network just minutes after police served a warrant naming a news director and the two reporters who broke the story.

JOHN LYONS: They have downloaded 9,214 documents. I counted them. And they are now going through them. They’ve set up a huge screen, and they’re going through, email by email. It’s quite extraordinary.

And I feel—as a journalist, I feel it’s a real violation, because these are emails between this particular journalist and his boss, her boss, its drafts, its scripts of stories.

I’ve never seen an assault on the media as savage as this one we’re seeing today at the ABC. … And the chilling message is not so much for the journalists, but it’s also for the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Wednesday’s raid on the ABC came one day after police in Melbourne raided the home of Annika Smethurst, a reporter with the Herald Sun newspaper. Police served a warrant related to Smethurst’s reporting on a secret effort by an Australian intelligence service to expand its surveillance capabilities, including against Australian nationals.

Australia’s acting Federal Police Commissioner Neil Gaughan defended the raids, saying journalists could face prison time for holding classified information.

COMMISSIONER NEIL GAUGHAN: No sector of the community should be immune for this type of activity or evidence collection, more broadly. This includes law enforcement itself, the media or, indeed, even politicians.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests in Australia. With us from Brisbane is Peter Greste. He is the UNESCO chair in journalism and communications at University of Queensland. He is founding director of Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom.

He was imprisoned for over a year, for 400 days, in 2013 to 2014, while covering the political crisis in Egypt.

And joining us from Perth, Australia, Professor Joseph Fernandez is with us, a media law academic at Curtin University, Australia’s correspondent for Reporters Without Borders.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Joseph Fernandez, let’s begin with you. Lay out exactly what happened and when it took place, all the details as you know them, both the raiding of ABC and the journalist’s home.

Joseph Fernandez
Professor Joseph Fernandez … the police “spent seven-and-a-half hours going through every nook and cranny of [reporter Annika Smethurst’s] belongings, including the rubbish bin outside the house”. Image: Democracy Now! screenshot by PMC
JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: Thank you for having me on your show. The two raids happened within 48 hours of each other. It began with a raid on Annika Smethurst’s home. You have introduced her.

At her home, the Australian Federal Police spent seven-and-a-half hours going through every nook and cranny of her belongings, including the rubbish bin outside the house. And they sought to access her email messages, phone messages and anything they could lay their hands on, including what she might have kept away in her undies drawer.

Annika obviously was very traumatised by this, but she has held her head up high, in the knowledge that the story about which she was being investigated was really something very arguably and very strongly in the public interest or of legitimate public concern.

The second raid, the following day …

AMY GOODMAN: And that story was?

JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: Sorry. Can you say that again, please?

AMY GOODMAN: And that story was, Joseph?

JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: The story was that there was a discussion, a discussion about a plan to expand state surveillance, that would have possibly included surveillance of ordinary citizens. And this was quite an unprecedented idea.

And the objective of such a plan was obviously going to be justified on the premise of protecting national security.

The second raid happened at the headquarters of the national broadcaster ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in Sydney. And police officers entered the premises armed with a warrant with an exhaustive inventory of things that they were looking for.

And as you have noted, they scoured hundreds and thousands of documents and materials, and left with a small collection of materials in a sealed package, with the agreement not to use them until a possible challenge is considered in the days ahead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Joseph Fernandez, these raids coming within a day of each other, was there any coordination, or were these related in any way?

JOSEPH FERNANDEZ: That’s an interesting question. One of the first questions that sprung into people’s minds was whether they were related, whether this was instigated by the government. The prime minister quickly moved to distance himself and his government from the raids, claiming that the two agencies and the police were acting entirely of their own accord.

And the police themselves are on record as saying that the two events are unrelated. And so, it’s left to be seen, you know, whether new light will be shed on the real circumstances that led to these raids. It’s quite hard to accept, without inquiry as to whether there was absolutely no notice given, whether informally or formally, to the bosses in government.

AMY GOODMAN: And for people to understand, I mean, the ABC is the leading broadcaster throughout Australia. I wanted to bring Peter Greste into this conversation. We had you here in our studio after you were imprisoned for well over for year by Egypt with your two Al Jazeera colleagues.

You were working with Al Jazeera at the time. You certainly knew what it meant to be arrested, to not have rights, not to be even told at the beginning why the Egyptian authorities were holding you. Now you see the situation in Australia.

And I was wondering if you can talk about the laws around press freedom, if you have them in Australia. Amazingly, in this warrant, the warrant gave the police wide-ranging authority to view, seize, edit and destroy virtually any document it saw fit.

PETER GRESTE: Yeah, that’s right. Look, there are a whole host of questions in there, Amy, but let me deal with the very beginning of it, and that’s the way I felt when I heard about the news, because it did—I mean, even now I can feel my skin pricking up, thinking about the raids and what that would have felt like, because I know exactly what it was like to have agents burst into your room looking for evidence, and all of the confusion that surrounds that, the outrage that surrounds that.

But I never really honestly expected to see it take place here in Australia. And it seems to me that even though I’m not suggesting Australia is about to become an authoritarian state like Egypt anytime soon, I think that we are being pushed in the same direction by the same kind of imperatives around national security, the prioritising of national security over the human rights and democratic rights of citizens, largely because it’s much easier to make the political case for national security legislation, particularly when you see attacks in the streets and the consequences of that, but much harder to make the more abstract case for human rights and citizens’ rights, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and so on, until you see what that means in practical terms.

And that’s what we saw last week with these two raids. I think it’s very, very concerning to me, and I’m deeply worried.

Now, as you mentioned, we don’t have in Australia any explicit protection for press freedom written into the law, nothing about freedom of speech. Australia has no bill of rights. All we have is an implied right of political communications, that the High Court decided that was there as a function of our democracy.

They said that we live in a representative democracy, and you can’t have an effective representative democracy without political communication, therefore, that right is somehow inferred in the Constitution.

But without anything like the First Amendment in the United States here in Australia, without any explicit protection for press freedom, what we’re seeing is a lot of scope for our legislators to draft laws that really intrude on press freedom in all sorts of deeply troubling ways that make it much harder for journalists to protect their sources, make it much harder even for journalists to contact sources within government.

And so, what we’re seeing is a vast web of interconnected national security laws that, in all sorts of ways, make these kinds of raids that we saw last week possible.

I’m not so critical of the Federal Police for carrying out the raids. I accept that they were probably doing their jobs. And as we’ve been hearing, there may well have been some kind of political involvement in there.

But let’s take what the Federal Police have been saying at face value, that there was nothing political. If there was nothing political, if they were simply fulfilling their duties under the law, then, clearly, the law needs to change. And that’s what we need to start talking about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter Greste, we have about a minute left, but I wanted to ask you, in terms of—who determines the violations of state secrets? Is there one centralised agency, or can various federal agencies decide to conduct these kinds of raids in Australia?

PETER GRESTE: No. Look, it’s quite difficult to know quite how the laws come into effect or come into force. I mean, let’s take a look at the data retention laws, the metadata. In any number of more than 20 agencies, government agencies can look into any Australian’s metadata without a warrant.

Now, they need to apply for a special journalist warrant if they want to investigate journalists’ metadata in a search for sources, but, otherwise, there is no—there is no warrant system. They can look anywhere, anywhere that they want.

And I think that’s the kind of scope that we’re talking about. That’s overreach. You talk to any lawyer, any civil rights activist, anyone who knows about the way the law operates, and they’ll acknowledge that that’s overreach. And we need to really start a vigorous conversation within this country about the limits of state power and the kind of ways that we need to encourage and support press freedom, and also the protection of whistleblowers, because, ultimately, these raids were in the hunt for the sources of these stories, for the journalists’ sources, for the whistleblowers that felt that these stories needed to be told.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have to wrap up right now, but we want to continue the vigorous discussion, and we’re going to bring folks Part 2 at under web exclusives.

Peter Greste, we want to thank you, UNESCO chair in journalism and communications, University of Queensland, founding director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, imprisoned for more than 400 days.

Also, Joseph Fernandez, a media law academic at Curtin University, Australia’s correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. Stay with us. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email