Junk Explained: Why Is The Australian Federal Police Raiding Journalists?

Press freedom in Australia is under attack. Here's why that should scare you.

AFP raids

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This week, the Australian Federal Police raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst over a story she wrote more than a year ago. The next day, they raided the offices of the ABC over a series of articles published in 2017.

You’ve probably seen a lot of people getting quite angry about these raids, describing them as an attack on journalism, freedom of the press, and the public’s right to information. You may also have seen the government defending the raids, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying that rather than feeling concerned, “it never troubles me that our laws are being upheld”.

If you’re confused about what’s going on, let’s get you up to speed. Here’s what you need to know:

Why Is The AFP Raiding Journalists Right Now?

There are two big AFP raids people are talking about this week. The first, on Tuesday, saw federal police raid the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst over a story she published in April 2018.

The story in question reported that the Australian government was considering giving spy agencies the power to spy on Australians for the first time. The story featured leaked, classified documents, and shortly after it was published the Defence Department referred the leak to the AFP for investigation.

This week, over a year later, the police showed up at Smethurst’s house with a warrant to investigate the “alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”, giving them authority to search Smethurst’s home, computer and phone. Smethurst told The Australian that the police were very thorough. “They went through everything in my house. My Christmas decorations, my drawers, my oven, page by page of every cookbook I own,” she said.

On Wednesday the AFP showed up at the ABC’s Sydney headquarters to carry out a raid over a story published in 2017. That story was The Afghan Files, which used leaked Defence documents to reveal allegations of serious misconduct by the Australian military in Afghanistan, including unlawful killings.

The warrant, which was tweeted by ABC News Executive Editor John Lyons, was extensive, allowing the AFP to search for documents that related to an extraordinarily long list of things. While the raid was not connected to the raid on Smethurst’s home, it was investigating a similar thing (leaked documents, basically).

Why Are People So Angry About This?

As for why people are so fired up about this, it’s pretty simple: they’re worried that these raids are threatening journalism, and will scare people away from whistleblowing and leaking important documents like the ones in these stories.

Consider the two stories that sparked these raids. We only know that the government was allegedly considering giving spy agencies the power to spy on Australians, and that Australian forces were allegedly involved in unlawful killings in Afghanistan, because someone leaked documents to the journalists who wrote about it. If you think those stories are important, you should probably be concerned about these raids.

Journalist Peter Greste has called for new laws protecting public interest journalism in the wake of the AFP raids, and he’s not alone. “By definition, democracy is government by the people. Politicians act on behalf of those who employ them; that is, us Australian voters and taxpayers,” he wrote in The Guardian yesterday. “As their employers we have both a right and a responsibility to know what is being done in our names. The means by which that is done is through good journalism.”

“Of course, there are things that governments need to keep secret. Whether they are the financial or health records of private citizens, or the operational details of our security services, there are places that nobody outside of the agencies involved should have access to. But what happens when things go wrong? What happens when someone abuses the power or authority that we, the voters, have invested in them?”

“It’s not just about the media, it’s about any person out there who wants to tell the media about a bad hospital, or a school that’s not working, or a corrupt local council,” John Lyons told ABC News yesterday. “The message from the AFP in my view, to all of these people, is watch out because we’ll be able to find out who you are, and we’ll come after you.”

Lyons also live-tweeted the entire raid on the ABC yesterday, and witnessed the whole thing as it unfolded. You can watch him explain what happened below:

What Does The Government Have To Say About This?

So far, the Government has pretty much said that in its view, there’s no problem with the AFP raids. Earlier today, Scott Morrison said that while he supports the freedom of the press, “no one is above the law”.

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton has also said that he supports the freedom of the press, but that “we also have clear rules and laws around protecting Australia’s national security”. Both Morrison and Dutton say the government had no involvement in the raids.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has questioned whether that’s entirely true, saying that “It is quite frankly I think outrageous that seven officers spent seven and a half hours in [Smethurst’s] home, going through everything throughout her home, in the kitchen, in all of the rooms”, and that “I would find it extraordinary if no one in the government knew anything about this”.

As for what the cops have to say for themselves, at a press conference this afternoon AFP Acting Commissioner Neil Gaughan defended the raids, repeating that “the AFP is a strong supporter of press freedom” and pointing to the fact that the ABC was allowed to film and live-tweet yesterday’s raid as evidence of that. He also confirmed that the government was not involved in the raids.

“No sector of the community should be immune to this type of activity or evidence collection more broadly. This includes law enforcement itself, the media, or indeed, even politicians,” Gaughan said. “There are criminal allegations being investigated and we cannot ignore them.”

“Both of these investigations relate to national security information, how it was handled, and who had access to it. The material subject to these investigations and search warrants relate to documents classified as both top secret and secret. The compromise of such material could cause exceptionally grave damage or serious damage to the national interest, organisations, or indeed, individuals.”

Gaughan said that the occurrence of two raids in one week was simply a matter of resourcing for the police.

Where To From Here?

The ABC now has two weeks to challenge the terms of the search warrant executed yesterday, and the AFP will not be able to access the files it collected yesterday during that period.

Regardless of what happens there, the ABC has committed to continue its investigative reporting in future, despite the threat of police raids. “The ABC stands by its journalists, will protect its sources and continue to report without fear or favour on national security and intelligence issues when there is a clear public interest,” ABC Managing Director David Anderson said in a statement yesterday.

Still, raids like these are scary not just for journalists, but for the people who share documents and tips with journalists. And if people are scared to share or report that information, then who knows what abuses of power we’ll never hear about.

Feature image mural by Van T Rudd