Actions expose risk to journalism and democracy

Australian Conservatives Release

Welcome to modern Australia – a nation where police raid journalists in order to track down and punish the exposure of leaks inside the federal government.

The Conservative Party is determined to protect our freedoms, including freedom of the press and leader Cory Bernardi will re-introduce his Protected Freedoms Act later this year with a view to protecting and preserving all of the freedoms Australians currently enjoy.

The Australian reports, the target of yesterday’s raid was News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst .

But this looks like the first step in a bigger plan to track down, and possibly jail, the person who provided her with confidential information that was clearly in the public interest.

Someone let her know the Defence and Home Affairs departments had been discussing monitoring Australian citizens for the first time. In other words, domestic spying.

Smethurst did the nation a favour in publishing the article and no harm was done – apart from some red faces.

Nobody was arrested or charged with anything yesterday but the police action against this reporter will inevitably have a chilling effect on whistleblowers who might now be less inclined to reveal government wrongdoing.

If the authorities can use the information on Smethurst’s computer and telephone to identify her source, that person could face prison under section 79 of the Crimes Act, which governed the disclosure of official secrets when her article was published in April last year.

That raises the question of timing: Smethurst published her article more than a year ago. Why raid her home now, just after the election?

When the secrecy provisions in section 79 were replaced on June 29 last year, many in the media were relieved because journalists were given the benefit of a public interest defence.

That relief was misplaced. Journalism is still at risk.

The defence was only added to the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act after the media industry pointed out that the government’s original plan was a backward step.

The new defence for journalists covers publication of “inherently harmful” material that a reporter believes on reasonable grounds to be in the public interest. The government rejected pleas from the Law Council for a similar defence to be extended to those who provide journalists with that information.

So, while the new law means journalists are less likely to go to prison for doing their job, it still threatens public officials with jail for revealing government misconduct such as that in Smethurst’s report.

After considering the implications of yesterday’s raid, Law Council president Arthur Moses concluded the journalists’ defence “is a mirage” .

“It is a mirage because it does not cover a journalist’s source,” he said. “While news media may have a defence if their reporting was in the public interest, the person who disclosed information does not have the same defence. Without equal protection for the person making the disclosure, this may lead to the drying up of disclosures to the news media.

“This would undermine public scrutiny of the actions of government by the media. Governments act in the name of Australians who elect them and generally speaking Australians have the right to know what is being done in their name,” he said.

/Public Release. View in full here.