The Australian Federal Police raided the Sydney offices of Australia’s public broadcaster Wednesday, apparently in connection with an article published in 2017 about Australian special forces being investigated over possible war crimes in Afghanistan.
The raid of the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s offices came a day after the same agency searched the home, computer and cellphone of a journalist who reported on secret correspondence between government ministries over a plan to expand intelligence agencies’ surveillance powers. The police said the two raids were not related.
John Lyons, the executive editor of ABC News and the head of its investigative journalism unit, said on Twitter that the police had arrived at ABC’s headquarters with a search warrant that named three journalists. “We’ll be taking material with us. It will be sealed,” he quoted one of the officers as saying.
The federal police said the raid was connected to allegations of publishing classified material, saying they had received a referral on July 11, 2017, from the Australian military and the then-defense secretary. On that date, ABC published “The Afghan Files,” an article based on leaked military documents that detailed clandestine Australian operations in Afghanistan, including cases in which children and unarmed men were killed.
It is against the law in Australia for government officials to disclose classified or secret information. That allows the police to investigate leaks to journalists.
ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, said in a statement that it was “highly unusual for the national broadcaster to be raided in this way.”
“This is a serious development and raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and defence matters,” he said. “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.”
The journalist whose home was raided Tuesday, Annika Smethurst, is the political editor of The Sunday Telegraph of Sydney, one of Australia’s most-read newspapers. She was at her residence in Canberra, the capital, Tuesday morning when Australian Federal Police officers arrived with a warrant to search her house and belongings.
The police said in a statement that the warrant was related “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.”
Asked about the raid Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “It never troubles me that our laws are being upheld.”
The raid on Smethurst’s home was believed to be the first such action against an Australian journalist in more than a decade. The Australian union for journalists, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, called it “an outrageous attack on press freedom.”
“Australians are entitled to know what their governments do in their name,” the union’s president, Marcus Strom, said in a statement. “That clearly includes plans by government agencies to digitally spy on Australians by hacking into our emails, bank accounts and text messages.”
The Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp. Australia, the parent company of The Sunday Telegraph, said that Smethurst had complied with the warrant. News Corp. called the raid “outrageous and heavy-handed.”
In April 2018, Smethurst reported that a top-secret proposal to expand the powers of the Australian Signals Directorate, the equivalent of the National Security Agency in the United States, was to be submitted for ministerial approval. She wrote that the proposal would allow “cyber spooks to target onshore threats without the country’s top law officer knowing.”
In the article, she quoted Mike Pezzullo, then the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, as advocating “further legislative reform” to help law enforcement agencies combat “online, cybercrime and cyber-enabled criminal threats facing Australia.”
Under current law, the signals directorate cannot gather intelligence on Australian citizens. But the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the country’s domestic spy agency, have the power to do so with a warrant. They can also turn to the signals directorate for technical guidance.
Since the article was published, there has been no formal government proposal for legislative amendments on the issue.
While the police are allowed to investigate leaks to journalists, members of the news media do have some recourse. Legislation passed in recent years gives journalists protection from having to disclose their sources. But courts can decide that the public interest in learning the identities of sources outweighs any adverse effect of disclosure.
After the raid on Smethurst’s home was reported, an Australian talk radio host, Ben Fordham, told listeners that his executive producer had been contacted by the Department of Home Affairs after he said on the air that several boats full of asylum-seekers had tried to come to Australia from Sri Lanka, citing a source he did not identify.
He said the department told his producer it had begun an investigation, targeting his source. “The chances of me revealing my source are zero,” Fordham told his listeners.