'Chilling' scope of AFP crackdown

 

Australian Federal Police officers are raiding the Sydney headquarters of the ABC over reports published two years ago regarding alleged unlawful killings and misconduct by Special Forces troops in Afghanistan.

The public broadcaster's Ultimo offices and studios, as well as three employees, are the subject of a search warrant over The Afghan Files special investigation in 2017.

The series of television and online reports was based on hundreds of pages of leaked, classified Defence Force documents.

John Lyons, ABC News executive director and the heads of its investigations unit, is live-tweeting the raid, which is being carried out by six AFP officers, including IT specialists.

They have downloaded 9214 items in relation to an extremely broad warrant, including notes, emails and draft scripts, Mr Lyons said.

The three people named in the search warrant are producer Samuel Clark, reporter Daniel Oakes and Gaven Morris, the broadcaster's news director.

The extraordinary action comes just a day after the Canberra home of Annika Smethurst, the award-winning political editor of News Corp Australia's Sunday newspapers, was raided by several officers over a seven-hour period.

Australian Federal Police officers arrive at the ABC in Ultimo in Sydney. Picture: Elise Worthington
Australian Federal Police officers arrive at the ABC in Ultimo in Sydney. Picture: Elise Worthington

CHILLING SCOPE OF SEARCH

AFP officers are pouring over emails and computer hard drives, and have demanded scripts and draft reports of "all stories relating to the issue", including notes, be handed over.

"This really strikes at the heart of what journalists do as sometimes drafts have notes, names and numbers - that's why they're drafts," Mr Lyons said.

"In summary, the AFP want anything that at any point may have been involved in this story. This is, in my view, a chilling development for the Australian public. This is not just about the media, this is about the public's right to know."

The AFP's search has resulted in 9214 items of interest being collected, which officers and the broadcaster's lawyers are now reviewing one-by-one.

The ABC's reporting two years ago included explosive details about a number of Defence Force incidents in Afghanistan during the war, including some cases that were being investigated as unlawful killings.

Some of the documents indicated "a growing sense of unease at the highest levels of Defence about the culture of Australia's special forces", the report said.

The leaked material also focused on at least 10 incidents involving special forces soldiers who allegedly shot and killed unarmed men and children between 2009 and 2013.

Mr Lyons said officers told him they are interested in "certain things" and have seized thousands of pieces of material, including email correspondence.

ABC staff watch live coverage of the AFP raid on their offices. Picture: Siobhan Hegarty  Source: Twitter
ABC staff watch live coverage of the AFP raid on their offices. Picture: Siobhan Hegarty Source: Twitter

Mr Lyons has revealed details of the warrant's broad scope, which seeks: "Handwritten/digital notes, diary/ies, correspondence - internal, external, emails & other electronic forms of messaging, minutes, reports, briefing documents, assessments, graphics, sketches, photographs or imagery/vision - drafts & final, story pitch planning logs, broadcast and online schedules, raw or unedited footage in its entirety, journalist's piece to camera, scripts drafts and finals including voiceovers, story boards/plans, status updates, website content, documents classified as 'secret' together with any manual, instruction, password or other thing that assists to gain access to or interpret or decode any of the above things."

Mr Lyons said the warrant also allows the AFP to "add, copy, delete or alter" material on ABC computers.

The broadcaster's IT staff have been gathered by the AFP to search through the internal email server for a series of key words.

A hard drive is also being examined, with Mr Lyons quoting the head of the AFP's search team saying "this could take some time".

"Pretty confronting scene," Mr Lyons said. "Is this a free media?"

'WE SHOULD BE CONCERNED'

ABC editorial director Craig McMurtrie addressed the media and confirmed the broadcaster was given some notice that "they were coming".

"We view this as a very unwelcome development," Mr McMurtrie said.

"We talk a lot about press freedom. To people who aren't in the media, it can sound like a bit of a cliche. But we should feel uncomfortable about this. We are here at the national public broadcaster and the Australian Federal Police have executed a search warrant.

"We act lawfully and we act in the interests of good public interest journalism. It is very, very concerning."

Craig McMurtrie addresses the media about the AFP raids on the ABC. Source: Supplied
Craig McMurtrie addresses the media about the AFP raids on the ABC. Source: Supplied

ABC managing director David Anderson described the search as a "serious development" that "raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny" of national security and defence matters.

"It is highly unusual for the national broadcaster to be raided in this way," Mr Anderson said.

"The ABC stands by its journalists, will protect its sources and continue to report without fear or favour on national security and intelligence issues when there is a clear public interest."

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance - the union for journalists - condemned the latest "attempt to intimidate legitimate news journalism" in 24 hours.

"A second day of raids by the Australian Federal Police sets a disturbing pattern of assaults on Australian press freedom," MEAA media section president Marcus Strom said.

"This is nothing short of an attack on the public's right to know.

"These raids are about intimidating journalists and media organisations because of their truth-telling. They are about more than hunting down whistleblowers that reveal what governments are secretly doing in our name, but also preventing the media from shining a light on the actions of government.

"Yesterday's raid was in response to a story published a year ago. Today's raid comes after a story was published nearly two years ago. Suddenly, just days after a federal election, the Federal Police launches this attack on press freedom.

"It seems that when the truth embarrasses the government, the result is the Federal Police will come knocking at your door."

The International Federation of Journalists has described the ABC raids as "very concerning for press freedom in Australia".

And the Walkley Foundation said it stood with the media industry in condemning the raids, saying: "We are deeply disturbed by the AFP raids."

Mr Morris made a short statement on Twitter in regards to the search.

He wrote: "For the record, (Daniel Oakes and Samuel Clark) are two of (the ABC's) finest journalists. Honest and committed to telling the truth in the Australian public's interests. Just like (Annika Smethurst). I'm proud of the difficult work they all do."

He later appeared briefly outside the Ulitmo headquarters to address the press pack.

"Journalism is not a crime," Mr Morris said.

"I would say to all the journalists at the ABC, and all the journalists across Australia, don't be afraid of the job you do.

"Stand up and be proud of it. Continue to act in the public interest knowing the stories you tell and the service you provide the community is a vital one for our democracy."

JOURNOS 'IN FIRING LINE'

The Human Rights Law Centre says it's concerned about the events of the past two days, with recent espionage laws working to "criminalise journalism".

Emily Howie, the group's legal director, said attacks on public interest whistleblowers and the press drive at the heart of democracy.

"These raids highlight just how dangerous it has become to reveal information in the public interest if it also touches on anything supposedly linked to national security," Ms Howie said.

"It's outrageous that journalists and their sources could face life imprisonment for revealing information that ultimately protects us all."

 

A photo tweeted by John Lyons showing AFP officers inside the ABC conducting a raid. Source: Supplied
A photo tweeted by John Lyons showing AFP officers inside the ABC conducting a raid. Source: Supplied

The Morrison Government last year introduced new espionage offences making it a crime to deal with information concerning national security "if the person intends or is reckless to whether that conduct would prejudice Australia's national security".

The penalties are 25 years to life, Ms Howie said.

"There are insufficient safeguards to prevent law enforcement agencies from using these powers to expose journalists' confidential sources," she said.

"This is shocking for those who are targeted but this surveillance also has a chilling effect on people coming forward. We need urgent law reform to stop punitive investigations and instead encourage truth-telling."

TIMING OF RAIDS QUESTIONED

In a statement, the AFP confirmed it was executing a warrant in relation to the publication of classified Defence material.

The referral to the ABC was made by the chief of the Defence Force "on 11 July 2017", who was then Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin.

"No arrests are planned today as a result of this activity. This activity is not linked to a search warrant executed in Canberra yesterday," the AFP statement read.

It comes a day after Smethurst had her Canberra home raided for seven hours by the AFP.

That search, which has sparked outrage in the media industry and was described as heavy-handed by her employer, related to an exclusive story from more than a year ago.

That story revealed top secret correspondence between the secretaries of the Home Affairs and Defence departments and a proposal to allow the digital spy agency to snoop on Australian citizens.

Just hours after Smethurst's home was raided, popular broadcaster Ben Fordham revealed he was also subject of a probe by the Department of Home Affairs over a report about asylum seekers.

Members of the Canberra press gallery has been swift to condemn the latest AFP raid, with Sky News political editor David Speers questioning the timing of the action so soon after the election.

Reporter and academic Peter van Onselen said: "What the hell is going on in this country?"

Kate McClymont, an investigative journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, said the series of actions was no coincidence.

"Why wait two years to investigate this?" Ms McClymont wrote on Twitter. "Again, the crucial question is the complainant. Police don't raid without someone lodging a formal complaint. Two media raids in two days is not a coincidence."

Guardian Australia political reporter Amy Remeikis described the ABC search as "bulls***".

"Journalists being raided for important stories published years ago all very much in the public interest," she tweeted.

"If you are not up in arms about this, you should be. This is always about info those in power don't want you to see & those brave enough to blow the whistle."

GOVERNMENT GOES TO GROUND

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg addressed the media about new economic figures moments after news of the ABC raid broke.

Channel 9's political editor Chris Uhlmann asked why it took two years for the AFP to search the ABC.

"Is this the kind of country we're going to have under the Morrison Government?" he asked.

Mr Frydenberg replied: "I will be prudent here and not comment on an ongoing investigation."

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said he understood why the raids made "people uneasy - not just journalists, but everybody who cherishes press freedom" and said it was essential Labor had an understanding of why they took place.

"I'll leave others to speculate on the timings of these raids," Mr Chalmers said.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young called for an urgent inquiry into press freedom in Australia in light of this latest AFP action.

"Another day, another AFP raid on Australian journalists," Senator Hanson-Young said.

"This is a very worrying sign. Australians deserve and have every right to know what our (government) is up to. The Prime Minister is wrong and out of touch not to be worried."

Queensland Labor senator Murray Watt said Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton "has some questions to answer".

Mr Dutton's office yesterday referred all queries to the AFP and has not responded to a list of questions from news.com.au from early this morning.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, currently in London, brushed off questioning from reporters over yesterday's search of Smethurst's home, saying he wasn't concerned.

He refused to condemn the action, which the journalist's union has described as a clear "intimidation" tactic.

The Opposition has requested an urgent briefing from Home Affairs about why the raids were warranted.

Shadow spokesperson for Home Affairs and Immigration, Senator Kristina Keneally, said media freedom "is at the core of our democratic society" and described the AFP action as "very significant".

"Labor takes Australia's national security seriously," Senator Keneally said.

"Protecting our national security is complex work but it always must have the right checks and balances.

"Minister Dutton must explain what he knew about these two raids … freedom of the press is an essential component of our democracy."

AFP officers arrived at the ABC to execute a search warrant.
AFP officers arrived at the ABC to execute a search warrant. Twitter


Coles milks marketing campaign for millions, farms suffer

premium_icon Coles milks marketing campaign for millions, farms suffer

THE supermarket giant agreed to pass on much-needed profits to Southern Downs...

GALLERY: Allora's most festive families

premium_icon GALLERY: Allora's most festive families

CHECK out how the Southern Downs celebrates the silly season!

Suspicious Freestone fire activity sparks police search

premium_icon Suspicious Freestone fire activity sparks police search

A SHOCKING sight spurred the QFES helicopter pilot to call for emergency services...