Legislative Council: Wednesday, July 03, 2019


Federal Police Raids

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (15:23): I rise today to speak about police raids on journalists. Whilst we do not always agree with the work of journalists, particularly when they get it spectacularly wrong, as they sometimes do, that is not the important matter. A free and well-resourced media holds public officials and, indeed, the business community to account. It exposes corruption and tells truth to power, if it is doing its job, which is why it has been deeply troubling to see several raids on journalists by the Australian Federal Police in recent times.

The first was a raid by the AFP on Newscorp journalist Annika Smethurst in relation to a story she published years earlier. The story was about a proposal to increase the powers of the Australian Signals Directorate, with a suggestion that those new powers could include the ability to monitor Australian citizens. In a statement, the committee of the federal parliament's press gallery said that the raid was:

…alarming for all Australians. It is in the public interest for us to know of any plan for greater powers to monitor our messages.

This was a raid on a journalist's home, years—years—after she published a story in her professional capacity. It is concerning to see such action by police agencies, particularly the Australian Federal Police, investigating genuine public interest news reporting.

Home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, I understand, described Annika Smethurst's report as nonsense, as is his right, and the secretary of his department described it as the worst example of ill-informed reporting regarding home affairs. I am not sure that that is quite in his remit. Yet, the article was referred to the AFP for investigation anyway, ultimately leading to the raid on Annika Smethurst's home. This issue alone was enough to cause concern amongst the media, politicians, public commentators and, indeed, the public.

But the events of the next day raised even graver fears. The AFP launched a raid on the ABC's headquarters in Sydney, with officers spending more than eight hours, I am advised, delving through emails, notes and other electronic files. This raid focused on a set of stories published by the ABC in 2017, known as the Afghan files, which published allegations of, to quote the ABC on Wednesday 5 June:

…unlawful killings and misconduct by the Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan, and were based off hundreds of pages of secret defence documents leaked to the ABC.

The warrant used by the AFP was extensive. ABC executive editor, John Lyons, who live-tweeted the raids, has said that he had never seen a warrant that was so all encompassing. It gave the AFP the authority to 'add, copy, delete or alter' a wide range of materials on ABC computers, including draft versions of some files and handwritten notes.

I must say that I was alarmed to see a warrant comprising the words 'add, copy, delete or alter' as permission for the officers. Let's be clear: the Australian Federal Police raided this country's publicly funded national broadcaster with a warrant to 'add, copy, delete or alter' materials. This is a significant intrusion into the ABC just a day after a journalist's home was raided for a completely separate article.

Journalists and, indeed, all Australians are rightly worried about the implications of this, of freedom of the press in our country, and our own general freedoms. It is absolutely essential that political leaders, in my view, reaffirm their commitment to a free press and ensure that it is protected in practice. Shamefully, the federal Liberal government has not done this to date, and it shows no signs of enhancing press freedoms or expressing concern at the implications of what has occurred on its watch.

I was pleased to see Newscorp's Michael Miller, Nine Entertainment's Hugh Marks, and the ABC's David Anderson come together to call for an overhaul of laws to protect press freedom. I hope our federal parliamentary colleagues take up this challenge and address this series of issues that have been uncovered. I hope these concerning events highlight to all Australians that we cannot take our freedoms for granted, and we must all do more to protect the free press in this country, and I for one will be watching these developments with great interest and some alarm.