Australia: A double assault on press freedom
Police bursting into the home of a reporter, cops raiding a TV news office—these are scenes worthy of an authoritarian state. Yet they happened in Australia last week, said theHerald Sun in an editorial. First, federal police raided the home of our reporter Annika Smethurst, confiscating her computer files and notes, rifling through cookbooks and other personal belongings, and even inspecting her underwear drawer. Her crime? Writing an article in April last year about a government proposal to give spy agencies powers to secretly access the emails, text messages, and bank details of Australians. The next day, police raided the Sydney headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and rifled through some 10,000 documents used in the network’s investigation of alleged unlawful killings of Afghan civilians by Australian special forces. These attacks on press freedom, which authorities claim were necessary to protect national security, are a “gross overreach.” How can there be an imminent threat to security when both stories were published more than a year ago?
Australia is the only democracy in the world that lacks strong legal protections “for freedom of speech and of the press,” said George Williams in The Australian. And this nation has grown only more hostile to media freedom since 9/11, with successive center-left and center-right governments passing a total of 75 national security laws. These laws allow reporters’ documents to be seized, “sources to be identified, whistleblowers to be shut down, and journalists to be jailed.” Politicians assured us over the years that all this legislation was needed to battle terrorism and would never be used against the media, yet here we are.
Why hasn’t Prime Minister Scott Morrison denounced this assault on liberty? asked Piers Akerman in The Daily Telegraph. The raids came less than a month after his conservative government’s re-election—giving rise to assumptions that he authorized them. Yet he’s offered us nothing but “despicable, weaselly sophistry” and “arse-covering.” Morrison says the police, not his government, signed off on the raids and that it is “too early” to talk about revisiting the repressive security laws. News Corp., which owns both this paper and the Herald Sun, is calling for a review of these overbroad laws, and Morrison should support that. “The law urgently needs reform.”
That’s rich, coming from a Rupert Murdoch–owned newspaper, said Waleed Aly in The Sydney Morning Herald. The Australian media mogul has consistently championed “radically expanded counterterrorism measures” through his News Corp., smearing those who cried foul as “soft on terror.” After years of such propaganda, Australians reflexively trust the police. Federal police are the most trusted institution in the country, and state police are second—higher than the courts, the politicians, and the press. We now have “a militarized, security-based culture,” and citizens just assume the government is acting in their best interests. Will we restore “limits on state power”? Or is the public too complacent?