Argument

Australia Is Undermining the Freedom of Its Press

A raid on the national broadcaster is a sign of how the recently reelected conservative government intends to rule.

Acting Australian Federal Police Commissioner Neil Gaughan speaks to the media in Canberra on June 6.
Acting Australian Federal Police Commissioner Neil Gaughan speaks to the media in Canberra on June 6. Stringer/Getty Images

In early June, a police raid on the headquarters of Australia’s national broadcaster shined an unexpected spotlight on the state of press freedom in the country. Seen from afar, Australia is one of the standout parliamentary democracies in the Asia-Pacific region. It is a vociferous promoter of democratic values abroad and not the kind of place where you’d imagine police striding into the offices of the national broadcaster with warrants to sift through the confidential emails of respected journalists. Yet this is exactly what unfolded.

The raid on the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) was a response to a seven-part series published in 2017 about alleged war crimes committed by Australia’s special operations forces in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013. A high-quality investigative series, the ABC’s reporting was expansive and well-sourced. It married the firsthand testimony of a special operator who saw soldiers “acting in a manner that [had] no regard for the value of human life” with key findings from classified defense documents. Among other unsavory activities, the leaked documents catalogued limb amputations, prisoner executions, and the killing of children by Australian troops.

It was the publication of the leaked documents in particular that the police took umbrage with, although the ABC took great care to excise compromising personal information. Only selected sentences from the documents were published, and none of the suspects were named. “The Afghan Files” series was by no means a WikiLeaks-style data dump of raw, unexpurgated material. According to the Australian Federal Police, however, its existence online constitutes a breach of the Crimes Act 1914.

The information is alleged to have come from former military lawyer David McBride. McBride, it seems, had found himself in a thoroughly unenviable situation. As a lawyer serving with the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan, he had come across evidence that Australian soldiers were breaching international law. The only problem? As McBride tells it, his own efforts at internal redress had gone nowhere, and the information was classified “secret” and marked “AUSTEO”—to be seen by “Australian Eyes Only.”

That the documents were stamped with such restrictions is dubious in the first place. The Australian Special Operations Task Group was operating in a multinational environment, so there is a strong argument to be made that other partners in Afghanistan (for example, the Dutch military, with which the Australians shared a compound) had a need to know about operations in which civilians were being killed. The Australian authors of the classification labels weren’t just keeping the public in the dark; they were also fogging up their allies’ situational awareness.

McBride believed that he had to break Australia’s secrecy laws and share what he knew with the press. The ethics of the decision aside, it was indeed a criminal offence for McBride to transmit the documents to a journalist without authorization. Little surprise then that he is now staring down a prison sentence. To his credit, he returned to Australia of his volition—to “willingly submit” himself to that fate, as he recently put it in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.

What is unexpected, however, is the lengths the Australian police have gone to punish not only the source of the leaks but also the journalists who reported on them—namely Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, a pair of senior reporters from the ABC’s investigative unit.

The Oakes-Clark story is 2 years old now, and McBride has long since admitted to leaking the material (publicly, on the steps of the law courts). Yet, a few weeks ago, the police showed up at the ABC’s headquarters in Sydney, ready with a digital dragnet to snoop through the emails of the journalists involved.

The Australian Federal Police claim they never intended to intimidate the journalists behind “The Afghan Files” story. Acting Commissioner Neil Gaughan went as far as voicing support for a free press even as he framed the Oakes-Clark series as illegal. Following a press scrum in which Gaughan styled public interest considerations as hurdles to be “overcome” (a word choice that indicates plenty about the police’s future intent), a broad cross-section from Australia’s political and media classes has voiced its concern.

The showdown with the ABC also comes in the aftermath of the Australian federal election, during which Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government was reelected in an opinion poll-busting victory. In some parts of the swing state of Queensland, voters lurched to the right as can be seen by the growing primary vote for far-right parties. That was influenced, at least in part, by anti-media sentiment, which now informs the government’s mandate. The national broadcaster (traditionally a public watchdog) looks set for a demotion.

The emboldening of the police is also part of a broader concentration of Australia’s national security organs under one so-called superministry, the Home Affairs portfolio. Formed in 2017 as a single apparatus to oversee national-level policing, domestic intelligence, and border protection, the Home Affairs Department was imagined as a venue for centralized coordination but has since evolved into a sprawling megabureaucracy. Helmed by Peter Dutton, a senior pit boss in the government’s ultraconservative faction, it is by far the most ambitious national security project in Australia’s history.

In his capacity as the minister overseeing Australia’s police, domestic intelligence, and immigration services, Dutton has pursued hard-line policies against refugees, minority groups, and “foreign-born criminals”—embodying a tough-on-everyone persona that pairs with his combative style in the political arena. Although Dutton denies that he was informed of plans for the raid on the ABC before it happened, its timing, just after the election, seems to reflect a growing willingness to use coercive power within Australia’s national borders.

Since the conservative government’s victory, the police have conducted similar raids on other journalists. One female national security reporter had her underwear drawer inspected by detectives. Another prominent commentator received a phone call from a Home Affairs official, who demanded that he give up the source of a hard-won story.

As worrying as this series of events may be for press freedom, there is an upside. It has sparked a public debate about a charter of rights and freedoms for Australian citizens—an old legislative project that remains unfinished. Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, basic protections like freedom of assembly and freedom of the press have not been legally enshrined as “rights” in Australia (beyond a general consensus that a free press serves the public interest).

There is also a growing discussion about the appropriateness of classification labels when the body making those decisions—in this case, Australia’s Special Operations Task Group—is potentially implicated in criminal activity. “We are supposed to have an awed reverence for this concept of ‘classified,’” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jacqueline Maley on the Australian government’s excessive exuberance for secrecy. “[I]t is essentially a label the government can put on anything it likes to prevent its publication.”

Indeed, where “The Afghan Files” are concerned, it’s worth remembering that Australia’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended years ago. Any latent operational security concerns are, for the most part, a thing of the past. The alleged misdeeds of the Australian Special Operations Task Group are now a question for historians, not for commanders trying to manage the in-theater public relations. In the end, no government should be allowed to keep criminal misconduct a secret forever.

C August Elliott is a former soldier and freelance writer. He writes regularly on defense issues.

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