Pacific Media Watch

1 October 2019

AUSTRALIA: Attorney-General grants limited protection to embattled journalists

Christian Porter ... "This will allow the most detailed and cautious consideration of how an allegation of a serious offence should be balanced with our commitment to freedom of the press." Image: Youtube

SYDNEY (Pacific Media Watch/ABC News): The Australian Attorney-General has granted limited protection to the journalists whose homes and offices were raided by federal police earlier this year, reports ABC news.

Christian Porter has instructed state prosecutors not to charge the journalists under certain sections of Australia's complex secrecy laws without his formal approval.

ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark and News Corp reporter Annika Smethurst are facing possible charges after being subjected to raids in response to their stories on Australian military conduct in Afghanistan and secretive government surveillance plans.

READ MORE: ‘Spy’ agency involved in ABC raids, new documents show

The Attorney-General sent a directive to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) on September 19 which said that should there be cause to prosecute the journalists, he must sign off on it.

“The direction means where the CDPP independently considers that there is a public interest in a prosecution for one of the relevant offences involving a journalist, the consent of the Attorney-General will also be required as a separate and additional safeguard," he said in a statement.

"This will allow the most detailed and cautious consideration of how an allegation of a serious offence should be balanced with our commitment to freedom of the press."

However, the directive does not mention the individual journalists’ cases or rule out the possibility of them facing charges.

Since the June 4 raid on Smethurst's home and the raid on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters the following day, media bosses have been campaigning for more protection of journalists and whistleblowers leading to a parliamentary enquiry into media freedom.

Some company heads have welcomed the Attorney-General's directive as a positive step to protect journalists while others have dismissed it as inadequate.

News Corp executive Campbell Reid dubbed the directive "unremarkable" and said it would do little to protect journalists, reports the ABC.

“This so-called safeguard falls a long way short of what media organisations are seeking, to recognise the role of journalists to keep the public informed," he said.

An ABC spokesman welcomed the directive saying that the broadcaster wanted the cases against the journalists concluded.

Politicians have also weighed in on the issue with Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young demanding Porter completely rule out the charges against the journalists.

"The Attorney-General should announce today that the three ABC and News Corp journalists will not be charged," she said.

"What we need is legislated safeguards to guarantee the freedom of the press and whistleblower protections. These protections must be independent of the government," she said.

Meanwhile, Smethurst’s legal team has said that the law which the AFP used to justify the raid was unconstitutional, reports The Guardian.

In submissions to the high court, her lawyers challenged the validity of the search warrant and the raid, saying that it was conducted simply because Smethurst's reporting was embarrassing to the government.

In April 2018, the News Corp journalist reported that government ministers had discussed new powers to allow the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on Australian citizens for the first time.

The lawyers have attempted to expose contradictions in the legislation on which the raids were based, namely section 79(3) of the Crimes Act – "communicating or allowing someone to have access to an official secret without authorisation."

They said the purpose of the act was to protect government secrecy as an end in itself and that purpose did not allow for information which was in the highest public interest.

The submission said that the protection of secret government information "is not compatible with the maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government”.

Pacific Media Watch

PMC's media monitoring service

Pacific Media Watch is compiled for the Pacific Media Centre as a regional media freedom and educational resource by a network of journalists, students, stringers and commentators. (cc) Creative Commons