JOHN STAPLETON Australia’s Vicious Assault on Freedom of Speech…

Jun 11, 2019


World’s most secretive democracy. Absurd overreach of power. Secretive, ruthless and vindictive executive government.

The scandal over the Australian Federal Police raids on journalists has deepened ever since their execution last week.

But the scandal has been years in the making.

First to recount:

News Corp political editor Annika Smethurst had her home raided by the AFP over a 2018 story about the possibility of the ultra-secretive Australian Signals Directorate gaining powers to monitor Australian citizens.

The ABC had their offices raided over a 2017 story on the alleged problematic behaviour of some Australian SAS soldiers in Afghanistan.

Both stories were based on leaked documents.

One can make any inference one likes about the timing of the raids, shortly after the conservatives surprised everyone by winning an election despite years of poor governance. They are feeling powerful once again.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s initial reaction was arrogant. Asked if he was bothered by the look of police raiding journalists homes, he replied: “It never troubles me that our laws are being upheld”.

But he has been a long time member of the government which created the present series of totalitarian laws targeting journalists, and never chose to speak out against any of them.

Already the daggy dad routine which won him the election has disappeared.

The claims of independence and political distance between the AFP and the government are not plausible. The last thing the government needed prior to the election was a whirlwind of hostile media coverage. Which is exactly what they’ve now got.

The traditional military view permeating the AFP, that journalists are public enemy number one, has served them poorly.

In terms of media management the AFP finds itself seriously out of its depth.

If the AFP was a private company that had to answer to its shareholders for a flood of hostile press, there would be hell to pay

As it is, an opaque organisation which has received hefty funding increases from the conservatives are almost entirely unaccountable for their failures. They all still get paid.

The commentary has been utterly scathing:

News Limited’s Joe Hilderbrand wrote:

“Of the approximately 250,000 or so words in the English language there is probably not one that adequately conveys how utterly stupid the raids are, nor how utterly certain they are to backfire against the very objective the security agencies are trying to achieve.

“The closest might be “akrasia”, which is the acting against one’s self interest through a weakness of will, and yet the idiots who ordered the raids obviously both summoned and enacted their will at an almost kamikaze level.

“On almost every level and in almost every way the security agencies behind the raids have spectacularly acted not just against their own interests but arguably against the national interest itself.”

Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited is usually closely aligned with the government. But on this occasion they have not held back, with multiple editorials, public statements and opinion pieces.

The government owned ABC has been equally scathing across numerous stories:

Chair of the ABC Ita Buttrose said: “The raid, in its very public form and in the sweeping nature of the information sought, was clearly designed to intimidate.”

Political Correspondent with the ABC Laura Tingle wrote:

“The raids, and any attempt at intimidation, is an outcome of a mindset, and a legal regime, that has snuck up on most Australians, largely under the cover of ‘keeping us safe’ from terrorism.

“The important point to note is that this regime doesn’t just pose risks for journalists.

It seeks to stamp out challenges to prevailing policy and authority, and it can be used against all Australians.

“Government ministers have been at pains to insist the raids had nothing to do with them. Except it has everything to do with them… This is a mindset that is not set by national security interests but by a casual slide into abuse of power.”

Even the international press got in the act.

The New York Times: “Even among its peers, Australia stands out. No other developed democracy holds as tight to its secrets, experts say, and the raids are just the latest example of how far the country’s conservative Government will go to scare officials and reporters into submission”.

Introducing articles on the raids, Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation, wrote:

“Very few Australians realise that free speech in this country isn’t really a thing. It is not merely not protected – it’s far worse than that. If you read any of the vast array of laws that protect government secrets, disclosure in the public interest is discouraged, criminalised, punished, and deplored.”

Denis Muller, senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne said the raids were vindictive because it had taken more than a year after publication for the AFP to take action, revealing how utterly lacking in any real threat to national security the leaks and publications were.

“It follows that these raids are a naked attempt to take revenge on whistleblowers and intimidate the journalists who published their stories. In addition to this question of AFP culture, many interrelated factors have brought Australia to this point – a clear and present danger to freedom of the press.

“The politicians have constructed a repressive legal regime designed to protect the executive branch of government, impede accountability to the public and exert a chilling effect on the press.”

The analytics on major stories like the data retention laws clearly demonstrate that the public have no interest in the welfare of journalists or issues that impact on the media industry.

Perhaps that is one reason why the Australian government has been able to pass some of the most appalling anti-journalist anti-free speech legislation anywhere in the world.

Legislation introduced by Tony Abbott and passed into law under Malcolm Turnbull represented the most virulent attacks on media freedom ever seen in Australia.

Farcially, both men like to folksily refer to brief stints in their early years as journalists as an attempt to prove their bona fides on press freedom.

Legislation pushed through the parliament by these men under the guise of national security, allowed for journalists and whistle-blowers to be jailed for up to 20 years, and this was only one of a string of assaults limiting press freedom.

Journalists are now POIs (Persons of Interest) under the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Act, in itself an abusive, intimidatory outrage.

But some of the most truly egregious legislation passed by the Abbott and Turnbull governments involved so-called Journalist Information Warrants. These allow access to journalists’ data by more than 20 government departments and make it almost impossible for a whistleblower to speak to a journalist without being caught.

As the MEAA journalist’s union records in its excellent report, Criminalising the Truth, Suppressing the Right to Know, the Journalist Information Warrant scheme was introduced without consultation with the profession and operates entirely in secret. Journalists are not informed if a warrant is taken out against them and if by some means discover that one has been taken out against them, will be jailed if they publicise the fact.

Each warrant can scope the entire cache of telecommunications for the previous two years, trawling through the journalist’s metadata in the hunt for sources.

The laws are now so tight that it becomes a question of how any journalist can write about security operations, or even their own surveillance, without being imprisoned.

More than the journalists they targeted, the AFP raids have focused attention on themselves.

As former editor of The Canberra Times Jack Waterford and longtime observer of the AFP has written:

“It’s a sorry story, and from a sorry and poorly led police force. It is an organisation given more and more resources and powers of surveillance and evidence gathering, even as its outcomes, whether in drugs, in leak inquiries and other matters in the public eye, are, in the modern managerialist phrase less than optimal.

“It is time the AFP, and its culture, was subject to searching external review. The public, and government, deserves a whole lot better.”

Jacqueline Maley of The Sydney Morning Herald concluded: “When an emboldened government that rejects transparency, collides with the erosion of public confidence in democracy, freedoms will die.

“And they will die quietly, behind closed doors, without even without even enough information for a proper post-mortem.”

At the end of the day all that can be said is: Watch This Space.

If anyone is still permitted to write anything against a backdrop of increasingly oppression, a tanking economy and alarming increases in social tensions.

John Stapleton worked as a general news reporter for The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald for more than 20 years. He is the author of a book on surveillance in Australia, Hideout in the Apocalypse. A collection of his journalism is being constructed here.

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