Australian Federal Police raided the headquarters of Australian broadcast ABC News Wednesday, seeking files related to a 2017 expose of abuses by Australian forces in Afghanistan, including alleged killings of defenseless children. The search warrant named three ABC journalists and whistleblower David William McBride, “a former military lawyer and captain in Britain’s elite Special Air Service.”
Executive Editor John Lyons live tweeted the raid, posting this comment.
AFP: I’m still staggered by the power of this warrant. It allows the AFP to “add, copy, delete or alter” material in the ABC’s computers. All Australians, please think about that: as of this moment, the AFP has the power to delete material in the ABC’s computers. Australia 2019.
That followed another AFP raid, on the home of journalist Annika Smethurst, a News Corps political editor. The police had a warrant authorizing them to search her home, computer and mobile phone for allegedly publishing official secrets. The search targeted information about an April 2018 article that Australian authorities had proposed secretly monitoring citizens’ emails, bank accounts and text messages.
AFP also targeted broadcaster Ben Fordham for a story about asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat. Fordham said the government wants him to identify the sources of that information, described as “highly confidential.”
The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening. – Ben Fordham
The raids in Australia come as the U.S. Government pursues extradition of WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange from the UK. Assange, an Australian citizen, published evidence of possible war crimes by US forces in Afghanistan. US authorities recently jailed the source of that material, Chelsea Manning, for refusing to testify to a grand jury about the disclosure. But, Manning, a former US Army private who served seven years in prison for disclosing classified information, says she already provided that information at her 2013 trial.
The New York Times observed that Australia’s “aggressive approach…fits with a global trend.”
Democracies from the United States to the Philippines are increasingly targeting journalists to ferret out leaks, silence critics and punish information sharing — with President Trump leading the verbal charge by calling journalists “the enemy of the people.”
Australians express outrage
“This really strikes at the heart of what journalists do,” tweeted the executive editor of ABC News. “Sometimes drafts have notes, names and numbers – that’s why they’re drafts.”
“This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths,” said a News Corp spokesperson.
Australia’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance responded, “Police raiding journalists is becoming normalised and it has to stop … it seems that when the truth embarrasses the government, the result is the Federal Police will come knocking at your door.”
It’s a complex case but it’s also a simple case. It comes down to: At what point are you obliged to basically rebel against the government? – William McBride
Implications for whistleblowers
The primary target of government raids on journalists is their sources, particularly those who blow the whistle on government wrongdoing. In the US, whistleblowers have been jailed repeatedly in the U.S. for leaking classified information. Under the Espionage Act, defendants (who now include Julian Assange) are not allowed to raise a defense based on the public interest in government wrongdoing. The US Government meanwhile continually expands the scope of information covered by secrecy claims, which now includes such mundane activities as federal meat inspection.