Morrison regime threatens press freedom

'Unfailingly' polite federal police arrive at reception, ABC Ultimo headquarters in Sydney
‘Unfailingly’ polite federal police arrive at reception, ABC Ultimo headquarters in Sydney.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on the public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and News Corporation journalist Annika Smethurst’s private residence, are clear indications the AFP is being used to intimidate journalists and ‘whistleblowers’, meaning public servants willing to leak information about questionable government activities.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton deny direct involvement, but those claims ring hollow.  Someone must have referred, or motivated the referral, of these matters to the AFP for action up to two years after the news stories on which information is being sought ran on air and in the press.

Morrison is on record stating that ‘no one is above the law’.  Except for him, and his ministers, who are exempt from being investigated by his proposed new Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC).  That body, not yet established was conceived without the power to investigate past improprieties, with laughably inadequate funding, unable to hold public hearings, nor act on referrals directly from the public, nor investigate senior public servants or politicians.  One might be forgiven for thinking Morrison has things to hide, including suspicions that his own ministers and department heads couldn’t bear even superficial scrutiny from an anti-corruption body with teeth.

 

On 11 July 2017, the ABC ran a story, based on leaked defence department documents, that Australian troops may have engaged in illegal killings in Afghanistan.   A year ago Smethurst wrote a story, published on 29 April 2018 across News Corporation titles, that revealed moves to empower the defence department and home affairs to spy on citizens.

The AFP has not answered why its raids occurred so long after publication of either story.  The assertions by Morrison and Dutton that they had no part in motivating these raids now ring hollow.  The Coalition has been very selective in choosing which leaks to pursue, given that leaks from its departments are so regular they appear to be carefully staged.  So, for example, the leaking of information in February this year, on the proposed ‘Medevac Bill’ to provide medical treatment for refugees held in Australia’s offshore concentration camps, will not be investigated.  Because it favours the Coalition’s stance of harsh treatment for refugees.

It is also no secret that Morrison has been waging war against the ABC on behalf of Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon who sees the public broadcaster as an inconvenient competitor with his pay per view TV channels.  Morrison has conducted this war both with massive budget cuts, and with a continuing series of complaints about ABC news media ‘bias’.

Although Smethurst works for Murdoch’s News Corporation, the raid on her private home appears to be more for appearances’ sake than a raid on News Corporation offices would have been, and focused on revealing her source rather than pursuing her personally.

At issue, now, is the fact that Coalition ‘national security’ laws have made raids on journalists possible, and that whistleblower anonymity is under direct threat.

It seems clear that such laws must be amended to protect press freedom and whistleblowers acting in the national interest against an increasingly authoritarian government.  Not to offer such protections would make Australia no longer a real democracy.

The Labor opposition cannot take any moral high ground here.  It supported these laws, no matter how much the party now says it consistently sought amendments to protect press freedoms.

Personally I favour the view, expressed by Senators Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff of the Centre Alliance Party: they plan to introduce a Bill seeking a constitutional amendment to guarantee press freedom.  That would mean a referendum, which is expensive, but likely to pass.  Voting against press freedom is like voting against vegemite or sunny weather at the beach.

It would be a humiliating rebuke for Morrison and Dutton, stating in the largest possible headlines they are totalitarians who cannot be trusted to act openly and honestly in the national interest rather than their own murky ideological agenda.

 

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