The Australian Federal Police have indicated senior News Corp political journalist Annika Smethurst could still be prosecuted, despite the widespread outrage caused by the raid on her home in June.
Senior AFP officials appeared before the parliamentary inquiry into press freedom in Canberra this morning, where they were asked about the recent raids on both Ms Smethurst and the offices of the ABC in Sydney.
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“I’ve got to be really careful where I go here. We’ve actually got proceedings, as you are all aware, currently before the court in relation to the search warrant that was undertaken, and that’s a live investigation,” Neil Gaughan, the AFP’s Deputy Commissioner for Operations, said when asked about Ms Smethurst.
“As we sit here, it remains the case that Annika Smethurst could be charged?” asked Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.
“It remains the case that the investigation is ongoing,” Commissioner Andrew Colvin replied.
At one point, Mr Gaughan appeared to give away too much detail on the investigation. Microphones caught Mr Colvin quietly telling him to wrap up his answer.
“I think particularly with the one we’re talking about, there is significant concern around the person who has provided – allegedly provided – the information to the journalist. Significant concern around where that person potentially sits within the bureaucracy,” Mr Gaughan said.
“Just leave it at that,” Mr Colvin whispered, motioning with his hand for Mr Gaughan to stop.
“So it’s a very important matter for us to continue,” his colleague concluded.
Mr Colvin told the committee it was parliament’s responsibility to set the balance between prioritising Australia’s national security and protecting press freedom.
“We don’t second guess the decisions of parliament to criminalise certain conduct,” he said.
“If there is an imbalance between national security and press freedom, then that imbalance has to be addressed through law.”
Mr Colvin said the AFP does not target any particular sections of the community, such as the media.
The AFP’s raid on Ms Smethurst’s Canberra home concerned a report published in April of last year, which revealed the departments of Defence and Home Affairs were considering new powers allowing security agencies to more closely monitor Australians.
The article included images of top secret letters between Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo and Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty.
“The Australian public’s right to know information about government laws that could impact their lives is of fundamental importance in our society,” News Corp Australia, the publisher of news.com.au, said at the time.
“This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths. The raid was outrageous and heavy handed.
“News Corp Australia has expressed the most serious concerns about the willingness of governments to undermine the Australian public’s right to know about important decisions Governments are making that can and will impact ordinary Australian citizens.
“What’s gone on this morning sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia. This will chill public interest reporting.”
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A day later, AFP officers raided the ABC’s Sydney headquarters over a 2017 series of stories known as the Afghan Files.
Those stories, which revealed allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan, were based on hundreds of pages of Defence documents that had been leaked to the ABC.
The national broadcaster’s managing director David Anderson said the raid “raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and Defence matters”.
Today’s press freedom hearing followed on from yesterday’s proceedings, during which a dozen senior media executives presented a united front.
News Corp’s executive chairman Michael Miller told the committee Australia had many laws that “criminalise journalism”.
“They are creating a secret society that most Australians would not recognise as our own,” Mr Miller said.
“We may not be living in a police state, but we are living in a state of secrecy.”
Last week Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton issued a directive to the AFP, telling it he expected “the importance of a free and open press in Australia’s democratic society” to be taken into account before launching investigative action involving journalists.
— with AAP