Australia's raids on journalists signal an authoritarian turning point

Yesterday's spectacular series of raids on Australian journalists by the Australian Federal Police are a turning point in how democracies view the role of the press and leaks: the raid targeted News Corp's Annika Smethurst over her reporting on a secret plan to grant the Australian Signals Directorate — a spy agency — the power to surveil Australians; 2GB radio's Ben Fordham over his reporting on human rights abuses of refugees; and ABC Sydney's offices over their 2017 Afghan files reports, which documented war-crimes and other misconduct by Australian military personnel.

All of these reports are months or even years old, and yet the Australian police carried out their raids now, prompting many to ask what has changed to inspire these unprecedented attacks on journalism? The most notable and obvious change is legal: Australia's 2018 passage of sweeping new surveillance laws and new secrecy offenses paved the way for the action, which puts at risk such key journalistic virtues as source confidentiality and the courage of the press to challenge and reveal official misconduct.

The Australian authorities insist that the raids were not coordinated and that it's all a coincidence. As Caitlin Johnson points out, that's a hell of a coincidence, and if it's true, it's even scarier than the idea that the raids were coordinated — instead, it means that Australia's cops and prosecutors have gotten the message that it's open season on public interest journalism and are acting accordingly, with lots more to come.

Australia is a politically unstable state whose governments routinely fail — the country has gone through five prime ministers since 2013. Partly, that's due to the nation's deeply unequal wealth distribution, with the majority of money and property in the hands of an aging, reactionary, racist gerontocracy who remain committed to the nation's genocidal "White Australia" project and whose dependence on fossil fuels has turned them into vigorous climate deniers and environmental criminals. The country's elites rely on voter suppression and other antimajoritarian tactics to remain in control, and are extremely vulnerable to revelations about official misconduct.

Thus it is that Australia has more "security laws" than any other democracy in the world. The raids on journalists are just a high-profile expression of this quiet slip into a security state — targeting journalists has always been a fraught business for states as journalists (by definition) are the sort of people who can get the word out.

But the journalists are just a canary in the Australian authoritarian coal mine. The attacks on journalists are part of a wider assault on migrants, dissidents, environmentla campaigners and others who threaten the wealth and privilege of an aging minority of climate-denying white supremacists.

In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia's interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an "aggravated offence" and be subject to ten years' imprisonment.

This week's raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.

But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a "general secrecy offence", whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham's radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.

Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the "journalism defence" by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of "public interest" is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.

Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy [Rebecca Ananian-Welsh/The Conversation]

(Thanks, Old Miser!)

(Image: Akezone)