Crackdown On Journalists Raises Concerns Over Protection Of Whistle-Blowers And Press Freedom in Australia

On June 4 and 5, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) conducted raids on the media, in order to find the identity of whistle-blowers who had provided journalists with confidential information. The first raid targeted News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst’s home in Canberra, for a story published in April 2018. The story unveiled the alleged government’s plan to broaden the Australian Surveillance Agency’s powers and enable it to spy on citizens, based on a classified AUSTEO (For Australian Eyes Only) document. The second raid – which was not related to the first one according to the AFP – occurred at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s headquarters in Sydney. The investigation concerned the Afghan files published by ABC in 2017, which disclosed the incidental killings of unarmed men and children by Australian elite special forces in Afghanistan. The raids raised many concerns over freedom of the press and protection of whistle-blowers in Australia.

Questioned about the raids by journalists, Australian PM Scott Morrison provided a lukewarm, unsatisfying response. He merely reaffirmed the government’s commitment to press freedom, while heralding that “no one is above the law”, and distanced his government from the AFP’s deeds. Human Rights advocates and the media expressed great concern after the recent events. ABC’s management director David Anderson stated “This is a serious development and raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and defense matters”. Peter Greste, former Al Jazeera journalist jailed during a year in Egypt said he was shocked by the raids, and that they sent a message to whistle-blowers and had a “very serious chilling effect”. The New York Times also considered the raids “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”.

The article deems the raids – which occurred shortly after the victory of the Coalition in Australia, which reinforced Scott Morrison’s power – a political show of force by the government, through the AFP. They sent a clear message to potential whistle-blowers and journalists. The Morrison government took a step further towards a securitization of Australian politics, trampling upon liberties at the same occasion. The media must continue investigating and holding the government and state agencies to account to maintain the checks and balances needed in a democracy worthy of the name. The article advocates for more transparency in the government’s policy, alongside with a further protection of whistle-blowers. It furthermore promotes the granting of a constitutional right – via freedom of speech clauses – to prevent the police from being able to access the journalists’ documents and sources.

In spite of the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistleblower Protections) Bill 2018 passed in February 2019, which implemented whistle-blowing regimes to legally enforce protections for people who make disclosures, the protection of those blowing the whistle remains quite limited in Australia. According to the Australian federal law, whistle-blowers making disclosure about certain subjects – such as immigration (Section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act 2015) or national security (National Security Amendment (No 1) 2014) – face potential imprisonment. The two laws clearly limit whistle-blowing action, and the National Security Amendment is moreover widely subject to interpretation, and by extension, politicization. Military lawyer David McBride is one of the whistle-blowers facing charges for ‘threatening national security’. He is accused of leaking the Afghan Files to ABC in 2017, and currently faces imprisonment threat based on five charges for divulging classified material.

By showing that journalists are limited in terms of source protection by the federal law, the raids, thereby, attacked the freedom of the press, one of the main pillars of democracy. It is also a reminder of the precarious status of whistle-blowers in Australia, who are aware of the potential imprisonment they face and will surely think twice before blowing the whistle. The Morrison government, nevertheless, cannot feel sacrosanct, while journalists and whistle-blowers must keep holding the authorities accountable. Laws to protect the freedom of the press and whistle-blowers must be enacted in Australia.

Zoé Duby