News

February 20, 2020

Another threat to whistleblower protection in Australia

An Australian soldier fires an AK-47 assault rifle in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan on 20 January 2010. The ABC’s “Afghan Files” shed light in 2017 on the role of Australian special forces in the illegal killing of civilians in Afghanistan. (photo: Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP).
An Australian federal court decision upholding the legality of last June’s police raid on the Sydney headquarters of the national public broadcaster ABC has dealt a major blow to the protection of journalists’ sources and poses a grave danger for the future of public interest journalism, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says.

In its ruling issued on 17 February, the court rejected the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s challenge to the legality of the search warrant that allowed federal police to search computers, emails and USB sticks at its headquarters on 5 June 2019.

 

The police were trying to identify the source for the “Afghan Files” reporting by ABC journalists Sam Clark and Dan Oakes in 2017 about the role of Australian special forces in the illegal killing of civilians in Afghanistan. The reporters used material provided by a whistleblower within the defence ministry.

 

“If confirmed on appeal, this federal court ruling will set a disturbing legal precedent by turning investigative reporters and whistleblowers into criminals,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The ABC story never compromised national security and clearly served the interests of the Australian public, who have a right to reliable and independent information freely reported by journalists. We call on the federal judges to guarantee this right on appeal by recognizing the search warrant’s illegality.”

 

Ruling fraught with consequences

 

Under the warrant, the police were authorized to search for evidence that the two journalists had “unlawfully obtained military information” and “dishonestly received stolen property.” The supposedly stolen property was the leaked documents that exposed the illegal killings reported in the “Afghan Files.”

 

The federal police raid on ABC was all the more shocking for coming just one day after a raid on News Corp political editor Annika Smethurst’s home in Canberra. The timing of the two raids was widely seen as a deliberate attempt to intimidate investigative journalists.

 

The judicial precedents set by these two cases are particularly fraught with consequences inasmuch as Australia’s constitutional law contains no guarantees for press freedom.


Australia is ranked 21st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.