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Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh writes in The Conversation (5.6.19) about the recent series of raids by Australian Federal Police on journalists and the ABC, arguing that these actions show not just the risk to those doing work in the public interest, but the potentially chilling effect it will have on more such journalism being brought to light.

'The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources. On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.

'This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.

'Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.

'And then on Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABC’s Sydney headquarters. This dramatic development was in connection with the 2017 “Afghan files” report based on “hundreds of pages of secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC”. These documents revealed disturbing allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces.

'… One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.

'Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.'

To protect press freedom, we need more public outrage - and an overhaul of our laws

Peter Greste writes in The Conversation (8.6.19) that, after this week's police raids on media outlets, we need a better way to balance two crucial elements of our democracy - national security and press freedom.

'A few days ago, Waleed Aly asked a not-so-rhetorical question in The Sydney Morning Herald. He wondered how many Australians were worried about the fact that the Australian Federal Police had spent a good portion of this week raiding the offices and homes of journalists who’ve published stories clearly in the public interest.

'His conclusion? Not many. He went on to argue that it is because we have developed a culture of accepting excessive state power, with no real thought about the consequences for civil liberties or the functioning of our democracy.

'Sadly, I would have to agree with Aly, but as with so many surveys, the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

'What if we asked, “Hands up who feels comfortable with relying on the Facebook posts and Twitter feeds of our politicians and departmental spokespeople for information about what our government is up to? Who thinks that is a good way to run a democracy?” Then, I bet you’d get a very different answer.'

 

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