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Your Right to Know – Freedom of the Press vs National Security

In early June 2019, the Australian Federal Police entered the ABC building in Sydney to execute a search warrant as a result of highly sensitive documents that had been...

Zoe Whetham

In early June 2019, the Australian Federal Police entered the ABC building in Sydney to execute a search warrant as a result of highly sensitive documents that had been leaked to ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clarke that led to the publishing of the “The Afghan Files”.[1] The Afghan files involved the leaking of hundreds of pages of documents allegedly implicating Australian elite special force operatives stationed in Afghanistan who were involved in alleged killings of unarmed men and children.

Police also executed a search warrant at News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst’s residence. It is alleged that Ms Smethurst used leaked letters to reveal discussions inside the Department of Defence and Department of Home Affairs about seeking a dramatic escalation of spying powers to Australia’s overseas allies.

The AFP raids have been labelled as an attack on the freedom of the press and that it is in the public interest that these stories be published. In response, Peter Dutton, Minister for Home Affairs, has stated that “no one is above the law” and that police are investigating matters that have been referred to them by the Department of Defence.[2]

The Metadata Laws

The Australian Federal Police recently revealed that they accessed the metadata of journalists 58 times in the 2017-2018 financial year.[3] As the Guardian reports, this admission came in a submission to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security’s review of the mandatory data retention law. It has also been revealed that the AFP accessed ABC journalist Dan Oakes’ private travel records as part of its investigation into alleged misconduct among Australian troops in Afghanistan.[4]

Under the mandatory data retention laws, telecommunication providers are required to store customer metadata for at least two years. This can include metadata from phone calls, text messages, emails and internet activity. Further anti-encryption laws were introduced in 2018, requiring telecommunications companies to provide user information to law enforcement agencies even if that information is protected by end-to-end encryption.

Freedom of the Press vs National Security

The question that is now dominating political discourse is whether journalists who handled leaked and confidential government information will face criminal charges. The government is refusing to confirm or deny whether journalists will face criminal prosecution, and Attorney-General Christian Porter recently distanced himself from previous assurances he had made that journalists are not being targeted by police saying his previous assurances were based on “limited information”.[5]

The issue strikes at the heart of what it means to be a democratic nation, and the Australian government now has to navigate a tricky path in balancing issues of national security with the need to allow journalists to investigate matters that will hold our law enforcement agencies and associated bodies accountable for their actions.

What is clear is that since the introduction of the Metadata laws, law enforcement agencies have broad reaching powers to request and access your private information. Whilst the legislation was introduced as a necessary vice to combat the growing threat of cybercriminals involved in terrorism and organised crime, it is clear the laws can be used to obtain the data of any Australian citizen that may be the subject of police investigation.


Image Source: The Daily Telegraph

[1] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-11/killings-of-unarmed-afghans-by-australian-special-forces/8466642?pfmredir=sm

[2] https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/peter-dutton-rejects-appeal-to-drop-action-against-journos/news-story/eeefd345e109de05d5442d274439e554

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/09/australian-federal-police-accessed-journalists-metadata-58-times-in-a-year

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jul/08/labor-calls-for-explanation-after-afp-obtains-abc-journalists-private-qantas-travel-records

[5] https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/limited-information-available-to-me-attorney-general-walks-away-from-afp-claims-20190712-p526oa.html