The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia’s hunt for leakers has journalists feeling exposed

John Lyons, executive editor of ABC public broadcasting network, is followed by an Australian Federal Police officer as they leave the ABC building in suburban Sydney on June 5. (Stringer/Reuters)

MELBOURNE, Australia — It was a scoop that shook Australia’s political and military worlds to the core: a leaked report in 2017 about possible unlawful killings by soldiers in Afghanistan.

Two years later, the story and its fallout are part of a case that has ignited a furious debate in Australia about media freedom, protections for whistleblowers and the extent of laws that claim to safeguard national security.

“It’s not just about the media,” said John Lyons, the executive news editor at the Australian Broadcasting Corp., the country’s main public television and radio outlet.

“It’s about any person out there who wants to tell the media about a bad hospital, or a school that’s not working, or a corrupt local council. The message from the [Australian Federal Police] to all of those people is: Watch out, because we will be able to find out who you are and we will come after you.”

Lyons made the comments shortly after police raids last week on the home of Annika Smethurst, an Australian political journalist, and the offices of the public broadcasting network, known as ABC.

The police say the investigations include efforts to trace the leaks that led to ABC’s report about the Afghanistan killings, and Smethurst’s report last year on plans to extend powers to spy on Australians.

Smethurst’s home in Canberra was searched for seven hours. At ABC’s suburban Sydney’s headquarters, police took away an estimated 9,000 documents.

It was unclear whether prosecutions could follow.

But the reaction to the raids was widespread and instant — examining the lengths authorities can go in Australia to potentially punish journalists and officials for exposing uncomfortable truths.

Opinions: Australia is at war with journalists

Australia has no constitutional protection for freedom of speech. There is, however, a deterrent to whistleblowers and other sources. It is known as Section 70, which makes it a crime for any public official to share information without lawful authority.

“This would not have been able to happen in the U.S. under the Constitution, and my question is why is this allowed to happen in Australia in 2019?” Lyons said.

It also reflects wider attacks on the media and pressure on leakers in Western democracies, sometimes retooling old espionage laws or using anti-terrorism and security provisions set after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In places with greater protections for journalists such as the United States, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted an increase in attempts to prosecute leakers and other sources. At the same time, public trust in journalism has been under attack by President Trump’s denunciations of “fake news” and branding journalists “the enemy of the people.”

Last year, Australia expanded data surveillance powers and passed a new set of secrecy offenses that sparked concern about the future of public-interest and investigative journalism in Australia.

Johan Lidberg, a journalism professor at Monash University in Melbourne, told The Washington Post that the raids had been coming for some time.

“It’s an international disgrace and an embarrassment, but this did not happen all of a sudden,” he said. “This activity has been building since 9/11 with the introduction of hyper security legislation and anti-terror laws.”

Peter Greste, director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, called it “a message to whistleblowers.”

“It has a very serious chilling effect on the prospects of anybody who is considering blowing the whistle on similar cases and also for journalists,” he said.

The raids have stirred calls for a legislative overhaul of security and anti-terrorism laws in Australia to protect media freedom and whistleblowers.

On Tuesday, top ABC executives met with Prime Minister Scott Morrison to discuss possible changes to laws governing journalism, but no clear proposals were made public.

Changes are unlikely to be easy. Australia has more national security laws than any other nation, said Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, senior lecturer at the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland.

“One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism,” she wrote in an article for the Conversation, an online news site.

“Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies,” she added. “And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled journalist Annika Smethurst’s name. This story has been updated.

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