Why the AFP raid on the ABC has me terrified

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Written Piece

As of June 2019, Australia is ranked 21st in the World Press Freedom Index, down 2 places from this time last year. Our Press Freedoms haven’t really changed in the past year, except the consistent attacks against the Freedom of the Press have been amplified.

It’s no secret that the freedom of the press has been systematically targeted since Tony Abbott first cut funds to the ABC in 2014. Turnbull cut an extra $83 million, and Prime Minister Scott Morisson cut another $84 million in his most recent budget.

Because of this, we lost Lateline, and may now loose Four Corners and 7:30; programs which have been instrumental in exposing corruption, jump starting royal commissions, and removing corrupt politicians from office.

The SBS too, has been similarly targeted. Systematic funding cuts have forced SBS to start advertising for revenue, which has been seen to diminish their integrity to the public, as well as SBS’ ability to report fair an accurate news.

Australia has been headed for an ideological aversion to freedom of the press and freedom of information, and it has never been more apparent than with the recent raids and investigations on our journalists over the past week.

After all, the Australian Federal Police’s raid on ABC’s Sydney office was Australia’s largest federal police raid targeting the media, ever.

The AFP are targeting not just the journalists who expose and report on our institutions wrong doings, but the whistle blowers who bring these issues to our attention in the first place, despite the public interest that journalists hold themselves to.

But what exactly does that mean? How do you define what should be in the public interest – because, really, there’s been lot of noise that the AFP is attacking the journalistic integrity of a report that was “clearly in the public interest”.

Well, funnily enough, in a senate hearing on the future of public interest in journalism in 2017, the senate agreed that public interest should be defined as giving “people the information they need to take part in the democratic process”.

So what does that mean?

Well, essentially, we, the public, cannot consciously vote, engage, or participate in our democracy, if we don’t know what our own government is doing.

If Government Agencies are doing things that would change public perception, if Government Agencies are enacting or enabling crimes such as spying on other nations to advance the interests of the fossil fuel industry, or allowing soldiers to unlawfully kill civilians, if Government Agencies are doing unethical acts that the public would otherwise hold them accountable to, then the public deserves to know.

It is in the public interest to know, because it would change the way the public engages with the political process.

And it’s a journalists job to let them know.

The New York Times really does describe best where Australia is heading, and why we need journalists now more than ever. The NYT would know after all, America is going down the same path.

“It is typical of authoritarian governments that assail press freedoms to claim they are defending national security, since any effort by the news media to expose official misconduct can be construed as a revelation of state ‘secrets’. And it is typical of democratic governments to recognise that this role of the press is essential to protect the public from official abuse.”

The Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA)’s Journalist Code of Ethics is a document I consider myself to understand quite well, after all, I’ve just spent the past semester analysing and interpreting it in nearly every single one of my classes, and it’s an integral document to my degree.

I’ve spoken about it before on my blog, when I discussed the Christchurch Terrorist attack, and I’ll be using it again here.

You see, the main argument for the investigations that I’ve heard (but not reported, because there’s been overwhelming support for the ABC by other news outlets), is that Annika Smethurst (who had her home invaded by the AFP not even 24 hours before Sydney’s ABC office), Ben Fordman (who, days after the raids, reported on 6 asylum seeker boats attempting to reach Australia and is now being investigated), Dan Oakes, and Sam Clark, broke the law by revealing confidential files by illegal means.

The AFP argued that 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” was worth the justification of raiding journalists private files.

Which to me, sound both sinister, and authoritarian.

Did you know the warrant the AFP used in the ABC’s raid not only allowed the AFP to drain their files, but also allowed the AFP the power to add, copy, delete, or alter the files.

The AFP has the power to delete and change journalists material in this here year 2019.

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(Credit John Lyons)

Now I’m not a law student, so call me out if I’m wrong, but as far as I’m aware, the law provides specific rules so that societies and institutions can be both protected an maintained, they tell us what we are prohibited from doing, as well as what we are required to do.

They derive from our morals and values. Which is why gay marriage was once illegal in Australia, back when there was stronger support for marriage to be between a man and a woman, whereas now our values have grown and changed.

And laws must be able to be regulated, there must be a way for them to monitored, so we can tell when someone is breaking a law.

Which is why, as honourable as it may be, Canberra’s new law to fine pet owners for not letting their pets exercise for more than one day is doubtful to work. How is the AFP supposed to determine whether people are walking their dogs everyday? Are all Canberran’s with pets going to be monitored? Who has the resources and funds for this?

Ahem, that’s most definitely another issue for another day.

My point is; our laws must reflect our societies values, it must reflect what we as a society deem important, it must reflect our moral and ethical codes. Laws set the minimum standard we must adhere to.

Our ethical codes provide the maximum standard we hold ourselves to. They provide us a guide on what is right or wrong, they provide us a framework for our own morality, and allow us to determine what is a fair, and what isn’t.

And see, the thing is, unlike America, Australia doesn’t actually have a constitutional obligation that protects freedom of speech. It’s considered a precedent in common law, held by the high court, but Australia doesn’t have anything universal to protect journalists from accessing information.

However, the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of borders, whether orally, in writing or in print, by way of art, or in another way chosen by him or her” which applies to at least one of the journalists who has recently been caught up with the AFP.

Which is something, I guess.

And the thing is, (despite what some people I’ve spoken to think), obtaining information from whistle blowers isn’t illegal, either. It doesn’t even go against a journalists ethical obligations. The MEAA states to;

"Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.”

So if these journalists used a whistleblower to obtain information, than they really had no choice, because there was no other attributable source available.

Journalists who refuse to reveal sources can often be found guilty of contempt of court and may be punished, which can make it difficult for whistle blowers to come forward with information to give journalists.

This is why Australia’s (albeit, subpar) shield laws are so important, and why they’re also being discussed in this war for freedom of the press.

However, shield laws aren’t federally controlled, so can vary across the country, and they’re not always distinguishable, “particularly in a case where it’s quite obvious what the police are trying to do is find out who the source is in relation to a particular document”.

David McBride, the whistle blower that lead the ABC to the Afghan papers didn’t actually contact the media first, and so should have been eligible to protection. He made an internal complaint to the defense, went to the police, and then went to the press when the inaction of both previous parties gave him no other choice.

McBride went through the proper channels that any law abiding citizen would, before he went to the press.

The point is, gaining information from a whistle blower isn’t against the law, especially since whistle blowers should be protected.

But you have to wonder, why were have so many of these files and stories been suppressed and labeled ‘confidential’?

Well, it’s simple really. The War on Terror has always been a matter of public opinion. Support for the war has been driven by the fact the the public didn’t know anything.

Sure, you could argue that these files are damaging for national security – I mean, why wouldn’t they be? Our soldiers were shooting civilians, I doubt Afghanistan is pretty happy about that.

Since ScoMo rocked up into power last year, Australia’s national security laws have been progressively escalating. It’s getting harder for journalists to report on the things the government doesn’t want the public to know, and it’s getting harder for people to stay safe in doing so.

It’s why this is such a terrifying time, it’s why my almost crippling fear for the future of Australian journalism has lead to this unwavering anger. Waleed Aly summarised it best;

“The problem … is eventually the only good guys left in the public imagination are the ones with that power and the capacity to abuse it. And at that point, you can complain all you like, but you can’t expect there to be anyone left to hear it.”

These raids, these investigations, they’re an intimidation tactic against Australia’s journalists, to the likes we’ve never seen before. There is no other developed country that holds such a stranglehold on its secrets, and no other developed democracy that holds such a noose over freedom of speech. It’s an example of just how far the government will go to scare reporters into submission.

The Australian government is trying to shut down journalistic integrity, because it doesn’t like it when journalists call them out on their inhumane bullshit.

But the thing is, journalists are going to keep fighting this, we have to. Because if we don’t have journalists to hold the government accountable, if we don’t have journalists to tell the public exactly what’s going on, then we don’t really live in a free democracy.

Because one of the key pillars of a democracy, is its freedom of the press.