Australia’s Journalism Investigations Underscore Precarious State of Global Press Freedoms — And America Must Pay Attention

Photo by Social Estate on Unsplash

nyone familiar with the Australian drama “Secret City” — a political thriller set in the nation’s capital city of Canberra — would likely recall its pressure-packed first season culminating in a sleuthing journalist’s imprisonment due to the passage of a draconian national security law.

A fictional series, it seems life in the Land Down Under is now to some degree imitating art, with potentially dangerous consequences.

Last week, Australian authorities launched controversial investigations into its press, prompting widespread condemnation from press freedom organizations and journalists across the globe. Among these troubling overreaches: a probe into the country’s public broadcaster, Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC), and a raid of an investigative reporter’s home in Canberra — both of which involved authorities seizing journalistic property, according to reports. Meanwhile, a broadcaster for 2BG, an Australian radio station, also reportedly said his work was being scrutinized by investigators.

ABC Executive Director John Lyons live-tweeted his consternation about the dramatic scene inside the newsroom, as authorities, including the Australian Federal Police (AFP), reportedly “downloaded” thousands of items with ABC’s lawyers present.

The purpose of the search warrant was to help identify the source of a 2017 ABC report titled “The Afghan Files,” alleging misconduct by the country’s elite special forces, according to reports.

“I’m still staggered by the power of this warrant,” tweeted Lyons. “It allows the AFP to ‘add, copy, delete or alter’ material in the ABC’s computers.”

A day earlier, authorities had raided the home of Annika Smethurst, national politics editor for the Sunday Telegraph, as part of a separate leak investigation. Smethurst, according to the BBC, “reported that the government was considering a secret plan to spy on its citizens.” The warrant permitted authorities to search her phone and computer, the BBC reported.

“They were polite but thorough … they went through everything in my house,” Smethurst told The Australian. “My Christmas decorations, my drawers, my oven, page by page of every cookbook I own.”

The Australian Federal Police confirmed the raid, saying: “This warrant relates to the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret, which is an extremely serious matter that has the potential to undermine Australia’s national security.”

Media Organizations Express Outrage

The BBC characterized the duel raids as an “attack on press freedoms” amid a particularly tense period for journalists worldwide.

The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), an Australian media union, said the government was effectively intimidating journalists to prevent reporters from publishing articles that put officials in a bad light. It is a similar claim made by American press groups concerned with the uptick in leak investigations stateside throughout the past decade.

“Police raiding journalists is becoming normali[z]ed and it has to stop,” MEAA Media section president Marcus Strom said in a statement.

“These raids are about intimidating journalists and media organi[z]ations because of their truth-telling,” he added. “They are about more than hunting down whistleblowers that reveal what governments are secretly doing in our name, but also preventing the media from shining a light on the actions of government…It seems that when the truth embarrasses the government, the result is the Federal Police will come knocking at your door.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international press freedom group, echoed MEAA in condemning the government’s actions.

“Persecuting a media outlet in this way because of a report that was clearly in the public interest is intolerable,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, in a statement. “This kind of intimidation of reporters and their sources can have devastating consequences for journalistic freedom and independent news reporting.”

The New York Times editorial board also admonished Australian authorities, writing that the raids are “straight from the playbook of authoritarian thugs.”

Why Americans Should Pay Attention

As we speak, the Trump administration is endeavoring to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for his role in massive leaks of state department cables and war reports related to Iraq and Afghanistan. The whistleblower at the center of those revelations, Chelsea Manning, has been indefinitely jailed for refusing to comply with a grand jury subpoena.

Last month, federal prosecutors charged Assange under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law meant to prosecute spies, that raises serious First Amendment implications for media organizations. Most news outlets are especially sensitive to the U.S. government weaponizing the Espionage Act against the news industry, fearing such an escalation sets a dangerous precedent. Their nightmare scenario: The New York Times, Washington Post, or even less-acclaimed outlets falling into legal peril for publishing leaked information.

That the Trump administration indicted Assange, first for a conspiracy computer charge, which press advocates also objected to, and weeks later under the Espionage Act, was somewhat of a surprise given the Obama administration’s decision not to charge Assange.

Photo by Ian Tuck on Unsplash

Trump himself has been openly hostile to the media, reflexively dismissing embarrassing stories as “fake news.” As much as press advocates cringe at his verbal and Twitter-fueled fusillades, they’ve also expressed concern over the ballooning leak investigations being pursued by his Justice Department. That includes a separate Espionage Act indictment announced last month against 31-year-old Daniel Everette Hale for disclosing classified information.

And this all comes two years since Reality Winner, an NSA contractor, was arrested for leaking classified information about Russian efforts to hack into state election systems. Winner later pleaded guilty and is serving a five-year sentence.

Alas, this is not a new phenomenon. The Obama administration put tremendous pressure on government sources and the news media during the then-president’s two terms in office, charging more leakers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined, among other actions that drew widespread condemnation from press groups, including the seizure of Associated Press phone records.

While the aforementioned examples have received national attention — though some advocates would argue not enough has been made of the government charging leakers — there are a number of incidents that receive far less attention, such as online threats and legal challenges. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 39 journalists have been subpoenaed or had their records seized since 2017.

Now, the Australian press is confronted with its own moment of reckoning. Lyons, the ABC journalist, challenged all citizens to consider the implications of what was being done in their name.

“All Australians,” he said on Twitter, “please think about that: as of this moment, the AFP has the power to delete material in the ABC’s computers. Australia 2019.”

The dramatic actions by authorities there may surprise some, considering Australia outperformed the United States in Reporters Without Borders’ most recent Press Freedom Index, despite lacking press freedom protections similar to the First Amendment. RSF ranked Australia 21st out of 180 countries and territories, a two-spot decline from the prior year, noting: “…investigative journalism has also been reduced by the fact that independent investigative reporters and whistleblowers face draconian legislation. Australia adopted one of the toughest defamation laws of the world’s liberal democracies in 2018, while its laws on terrorism and national security make covering these issues almost impossible.”

The United States, meanwhile, fell three spots to №48 — and that was before the Trump DOJ made the alarming decision to charge Assange with espionage.

It appears Lyons’ plea to Australian citizens could extend to Americans as well. After all, the last decade has not been kind to journalists’ sources. As much as groups have attempted to raise awareness and educate the public on why jailing sources is akin to chilling reporting, such concerns have yet to fully capture the country’s consciousness. At the same time, leakers such as Manning and Edward Snowden have been vilified, with discussions often devolving into overly simplistic “hero vs. traitor” debates that lack nuance.

By conveniently shifting the conversation to the leaker rather than the source material, it’s understandable citizens are then left to defend or discredit the source, since their own “patriotism” is simultaneously being challenged. So do citizens care enough to push back and demand that governments don’t infringe on the press’ ability do its job? We still don’t know.

Judging by its action, Australia may offer the first true test of how far the public will let the government intrude on press freedoms. Americans would do well to pay attention.

News Beat is an award-winning podcast that mixes hard-hitting, social justice journalism with music to uniquely examine some of the most pressing issues facing society. Each episode features interviews from well-known voices — ranging from activists to scholars to journalists — set to music, interspersed with powerful, original lyrics crafted by notable artists specifically for that episode.



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