CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian government assurances that public sector leakers rather than journalists are the targets of raids on two media organizations have come under question as new details have emerged of police efforts to track one reporter’s movements and to discover who reporters talk to by phone.
Executives of Australian Broadcasting Corp. and News Corp. Australia have expressed their frustration that a month after raids on ABC’s Sydney headquarters and a News Corp. political editor’s Canberra home, “the fate of our journalists remains unclear.”
They had joined with other media organization to demand legal reforms that would exempt journalists from national security laws passed since 2012 that “would put them in jail for doing their jobs.”
Attorney-General Christian Porter, who would need to authorize any prosecution of reporters involved, said last month “there is absolutely no suggestion that any journalist is the subject of the present investigations.”
But ABC Managing Director David Anderson revealed on Thursday that he had written to the minister responsible for police, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, calling for police to drop their investigation of two ABC reporters, Dan Oakes and Sam Clark.
The ABC had asked that “any action against the pair cease. Failing that, that the ABC be briefed on when and how the AFP action will be resolved,” Anderson said in a staff email, referring to Australian Federal Police.
Dutton’s office said he had no comment. Documents reported in the media in recent days suggest that reporters are in police sights.
The search warrant executed on National Politics Editor Annika Smethurst’s home hunted for leaked government documents that formed the basis of an article she wrote more than a year ago.
The article, dismissed by Dutton at the time as “nonsense,” said Defense Department and Home Affairs Department bosses had canvassed giving a security agency new legal powers to spy on Australians.
The raid on the ABC the following day sought documents relating to the Australian Special Air Service Regiment’s involvement in Afghanistan.
Oakes and Clark reported in 2017 that Australian troops had killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan in potential war crimes.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported this week that police had asked Qantas Airways in March for information about two trips Oakes’ had taken in June and September in 2016. Qantas complied, the newspaper said.
The newspaper cited an internal police document with the headline “R v Daniel Michael Oakes” — Australian legal terminology equivalent to “people versus” in the United States, which suggests an intention to prosecute.
Police emails released under freedom of information laws reveal that investigators considered that Smethurst could be charged for publishing classified information. One police officer noted that media reporting a day after the raid on Smethurst’s home missed the fact that she could face charges.
“Reporting hasn’t caught up on the publishing offence — many still think she’s just doing her job,” the officer wrote in an email.
Denis Muller, senior research fellow at Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, said there appeared to be a “disconnect” between Porter, who can veto charges, and Dutton, who controls police, on whether reporters should be pursued.
“They’re going to string this thing out with Oakes and Smethurst as long as they can as an exercise in intimidation,” Muller said.
Concerns about Australian reporters’ ability to protect sources identities have escalated with a revelation this week that police used two special warrants to access journalists’ metadata — phone and computer records — on 58 occasions in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
That was the year police began their investigations into the ABC and News Corp. leaks. Police will not say whether the warrants related to those investigations.
Paul Murphy, chief executive of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance — the Australian journalists’ union — said such revelations pointed to an urgent need for Parliament to legislate to protect journalists and whistleblowers.
In London at a conference on press freedom, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney mentioned the Australian police raids in the context of threats to press freedom that “exist even in countries that otherwise have a strong tradition of free speech.”
Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who is representing Australia at the conference, said her government had made the right decision last week by asking a parliamentary committee to hold an inquiry into the impact of Australian law enforcement and intelligence powers on press freedom in response to public outrage over the raids.
But critics argue that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security — chaired by an SAS veteran of the Afghanistan war and government lawmaker Andrew Hastie — is not equipped to find the correct balance.