Outrageous raids on journalists in Australia and elsewhere threaten press freedom



Police entering ABC offices in Sydney

Australian authorities raided the home and electronic devices of journalist Annika Smethurst on Tuesday, and the headquarters of ABC News in Sydney on Wednesday. These incidents are the latest in a string of instances — in no way limited to Australia — of government targeting of journalists for their reporting.

Governments raiding journalists’ homes, newsrooms, and poring through their electronic devices not only endangers their confidential sources, but also threatens to make normal newsgathering activities a dangerous — or even criminal — activity.

The warrant for the raid on ABC — which even allows police to modify material on the newsroom computers — relates to the outlet’s 2017 reporting on unlawful killings by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, which was based on leaked Australian defense department documents. And Smethurst authored an explosive story last year that exposed secret government surveillance operations of the Australian public. But although authorities quickly dismissed her report as “nonsense," police opened a leak investigation.

The Australian Federal Police confirmed in a statement that the warrant for the raid on Smethurt’s home and devices “relates 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.”

Reporters obtain, publish, and report on confidential government information all the time. The public’s right to know would be severely inhibited if the press could only publish news that the government decides is not “secret.” In countries around the world, government documents are also frequently over-classified even when the information they contain is in the public interest, and not harmful to national security at all. Government claims that harm would result from unauthorized disclosures are often exaggerated to justify targeting the whistleblowers and journalists who expose them.

Sadly, similar incidents have cropped up in several other western countries, who claim to value press freedom, in recent weeks.

In France, journalists are facing up to five years in prison and a €75,000 ($84,000) fine for their handling of secret government documents. Their groundbreaking reporting revealed huge amounts of French, British, and American military equipment that was sold and then used in the war in Yemen. The journalists are accused of “compromising the secrecy of national defense” just for handling classified documents at all.

Here in the United States, San Francisco police recently raided the home of an independent reporter as part of an investigation into his source of a police report. And in what is perhaps the most significant and fundamental threat to press freedom in the 21st century, the Trump administration has charged WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for obtaining and publishing classified government information related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Recent legislative efforts threaten to further endanger both journalists and their sources. Last year, Australia introduced new sweeping espionage laws that exacerbated penalties for whistleblowers — to potentially face 25 years, or even life in prison, for leaks.

In the United States, the Justice Department has vowed to revise the agency’s internal guidelines for surveilling and subpoenaing journalists. The Trump administration is currently on pace to shatter the record for the most prosecutions of journalistic sources, held by the Obama administration. And while not a legislative change, charging a publisher under the Espionage Act for publishing secret information is an unprecedented use of that law, and it could be weaponized against other journalists in the future if allowed to stand.

The targeting of journalists and newsrooms for reporting on secret government information in the public interest is a problem that is only getting worse. It is far from unique to Australia or France or the United States, but if these countries — which hold themselves up as bastions of democracy and press freedom — engage in these violations of core liberties, other governments will be empowered to do even worse, and journalists in every corner of the world will face the consequences.

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