Agents from Australia’s Federal Police arrived at her door on a Tuesday morning in June, armed with a search warrant. The raid began in her bedroom. They went through everything: bedside drawers, the bed itself, her closet, the pockets of her clothes, her handbags, her underwear. They looked inside DVDs she didn’t even know she owned anymore and paged through all the books on her shelves. They rummaged through Christmas decorations, searched her sewing basket, and pulled down picture frames. It went on for seven hours, and it might have gone unpublicized but for one twist. Its target was Annika Smethurst, the national political editor of News Corp., the media giant owned by Rupert Murdoch. The raid of her Canberra residence came one year after she had reported that Australian federal law enforcement was seeking to expand its surveillance capabilities by gathering information on citizens’ phones and computers. The following day, the federal police struck again—seizing records from The Australian Broadcasting Corp., the nation’s public broadcaster, for reporting on the operations of Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan, which included the killings of unarmed men and of children. Police also obtained the personal travel records of Daniel Oakes, one of the ABC correspondents who broke the Afghanistan story, from Qantas Airways.
Journalists have been quick to condemn the raids and seizures as violations. More worrisome was whether they were meant as warnings. In recent years, Australia has passed more than sixty laws curtailing freedom of the press in the name of “national security.” Reporting by Smethurst and the ABC was clearly in the public interest, and the raids shocked media-watchers in this laidback land of sunshine and the “fair go,” a sort of national slogan that captures the ideal of egalitarian justice and opportunity. What does it mean when a country that calls itself a democracy attacks one of democracy’s defining principles?
Courtney C. Radsch, an advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists who writes on press restrictions in Australia, says that she is hearing “a lot about what people are calling the criminalization of journalism.” Johan Lidberg, an associate professor of journalism at Monash University in Melbourne, calls Australia “a real enigma” when it comes to press freedoms. “I’ve lived here for twenty-one years, and the longer I live here, the more complicated it seems.” In June, he warned of the threat that recent regulations on the press pose, noting that the balance between the protection of civil liberties and the power of governmental authority is tipping dangerously toward the latter. He is one of many media experts advocating for either a constitutional amendment or federal legislation that explicitly protects media freedom and freedom of speech.
Both News Corp. and ABC have challenged the raids in court, but federal officials have defended them. “No sector of the community should be immune for this type of activity or evidence collection more broadly,” Australian Acting Commissioner Neil Gaughan told the ABC News Channel. “This includes law enforcement itself, the media, or indeed, even politicians.” Speaking to journalists in London, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the raids had occurred without his government’s knowledge and that “Australia believes strongly in the freedom of the press.” But, he added, “There are also clear rules protecting Australia’s national security and everybody should operate in accordance with all of those laws passed by our parliament…. It never troubles me that our laws are being upheld.”