The freedom of the press, and our democracy, is facing an unprecedented threat against it, the kind that Australia has never seen before. Two Australian Federal Police raids were conducted over two days this week, first at the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst, and secondly, at the ABC Offices in Sydney CBD. This act has been condemned by the NSW Council for Civil Liberties (CCL). President of CCL Pauline Wright said: “we are witnessing what amounts to a state crackdown on journalism. It strikes at the heart of the freedom and independence of the press, which are a cornerstone of democracy.”


According to the NSW CCL, “the raid of Ms Smethurst’s home related to a story from April 2018, showing the Department of Home Affairs and the Defence Department were secretly considering giving the Australian Signals Directorate powers to spy on Australians.” “The Attorney-General Christian Porter has indicated that the point of the raid on Smethurst’s home was to target her source and was not directed at her as a journalist.” “The ABC Offices were raided in relation to stories from 2017, called the ‘Afghan Files’, exposing allegations of unlawful killing and other misconduct by Australian forces.” News reporters and the CCL are suspicious about the timing of these raids, as the stories they are related to are all over a year old. The relevant stories were based on leaks and are viewed as being in the public interest. Even if we assume that the Attorney-General is correct in his statement on the intention behind the raid on a journalist’s home, it is still an abhorrent act which has the practical affect of criminalising investigative journalism. When matters are in the public interest, the right for Australian citizens to expect a transparent government which protects whistle-blowers and journalists, should be upheld. It is important to emphasise that, if the Australian public is unaware of controversial actions by its own government, or has this information from reputable media sources repressed, this disenfranchises them from making informed decisions about who gets to represent them in these issues.


Of course, the subject of whistle-blowers can be quite touchy. Government departments need to ensure that sensitive matters are kept private, so as not to interfere with ongoing projects or investigations. They need to ensure that potential threats to such privacy are aware that there can be harsh penalties to breaching this trust. It is a difficult balancing exercise to implement policies in relation to this. Of course, the public also has an interest in having confidence that government actors do not leak private information. The public also needs to have confidence, however, that their government is not committing acts that are in opposition to the will of the people or breaking international laws, and that they are implementing policies with transparency. These raids have caused a re-surfacing of calls by the CCL to develop a Federal Charter of Rights and a Human Rights Act for NSW. It appears this would be a good course of action to take, to protect the integrity of the press, at the very least.


This attack on freedoms of the press appears at a time when there has been a gradual trend away from civil liberties. Just recently, Wikileaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange, who is Australian, was arrested by British police, after his claim for asylum had been withdrawn from the Ecuadorian embassy he had been taking refuge in for nearly seven years. He faces a charge for failing to surrender to the British Courts in 2012. He has also been threatened with extradition to the United States for an alleged conspiracy to leak secret documents in 2010 and the Australian government has turned its back on him. This extremely controversial case of Assange has merits on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, he exposed war crime atrocities and corruption by the US Government which should be exposed to the public in an open democracy, but on the other hand, he and his organisation have completely disregarded an individual’s, and governments, right to privacy. There are fears that the US extradition of a non-citizen could lead to more silencing of journalists, paving the way for authoritarian-style rule. The only potential protection Assange has at this stage is the US freedom of speech as enshrined in their Constitution. A lack of this, however, in Australia, could see journalists discouraged from doing their duty and exposing government corruption.

Continual Trend in Australia

These raids appear to follow a deeper trend of anti-civil liberty policies such as the prosecution of whistle-blower Richard Boyle, NSW strip search laws, the encroachment on civil liberties to combat terrorism, and amongst many more, the call by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to allow police to search homes without a warrant. If you’d like to read our reporting of this NSW policy, check out this link.

For other interesting cases where the balancing of rights are being tested, check out our blog post on discriminatory comments by Israel Folau and the anti-Islamic comments by Senator Fraser Anning.

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