Two years ago, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published a searing investigative report based on hundreds of pages of secret military files that suggested Australian soldiers had killed unarmed civilians and children in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, federal police showed up at the ABC’s Sydney headquarters armed with a warrant naming a news director and the two reporters who broke that story and demanding access to everything from emails to notes and drafts. Federal agents later reviewed more than 9,000 documents, according to John Lyons, ABC News’s executive editor.
“I have to say, sitting here watching police using a media organisation’s computers to track everything to do with a legitimate story I can’t help but think: this is a bad, sad and dangerous day for a country where we have for so long valued — and taken for granted — a free press,” Lyons tweeted.
The raid is the second this week by Australian Federal Police on a journalist and comes at a time of growing concerns of eroded press freedoms around the world and in the U.S. Advocates decried the police actions at ABC’s headquarters and warned it would have a chilling effect on investigative reporting in the country.
“Attacks on public interest whistleblowers and the free press drive at the heart of our democracy,” said Emily Howie, a legal director at Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre. “Governments may be uncomfortable about journalists exposing wrongdoing, but that’s precisely why a free press is absolutely vital.”
The Australian Federal Police hasn’t specified why it targeted the ABC but in a statement said the warrant was “in relation to allegations of publishing classified material,” citing a 1914 law forbidding the release of secret government information. Police added that no arrests were expected today.
Leaders at the ABC vowed to protect sources and continue investigative reporting about the government.
“This is a serious development and raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and defence matters,” the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, said in a statement. “The ABC stands by its journalists, will protect its sources and continue to report without fear or favour on national security and intelligence issues when there is a clear public interest.”
Federal police, dressed in suits and accompanied by IT specialists, showed up at the ABC’s headquarters around 11:30 a.m. local time. Their warrant covered an “extraordinary range” of people and documents related to the Afghan files, Lyons tweeted, mentioning handwritten and digital notes, emails and even graphics related to the piece.
Agents, lawyers and broadcast executives huddled in a room and reviewed 9,214 files, Lyons wrote, including thousands of internal emails. In the end, the government downloaded files to USB drives and agreed to a two-week “hiatus,” Lyons reported, to allow the ABC time to challenge the seizures in court.
Wednesday’s raid came less than 24 hours after federal agents showed up with a warrant at the Canberra home of Annika Smethurst, the Sunday Telegraph of Sydney’s political editor, who had reported on alleged plans to allow greater surveillance of Australian citizens. Agents searched her home, computer and phone. News Corp Australia, her employer, argued that the raid “sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia.”
Australian Federal Police said the two raids were not connected.
“The Afghan Files,” the July 2017 story at the center of Wednesday’s police action, raised public outrage with details of special forces soldiers who had allegedly killed unarmed civilians. In March, a defense lawyer was charged with leaking the secret documents to reporters.
ABC executives promised to fight the government’s actions.
“We will be doing everything we can to limit the scope of this and we will do everything we can to stand by our reporters and as a general observation, we always do whatever we can to stand by our sources of course,” Craig McMurtrie, ABC’s editorial director, told the Associated Press.