Australian media protest against raids, gag orders

Several leading Australian newspapers protested against secrecy laws this week by blacking out their front pages, local reports say.

 The newspapers displayed a heavily edited government document to show the level of censorship in Australia. Alongside, they carried a Your Right to Know campaign asking the conservative government to repeal laws that treat journalists and whistle-blowers as criminals.

The campaign involving media houses and journalists’ unions called on politicians and bureaucrats to stop suppressing scandals and withholding information in the name of national security.

In June this year, police raided national broadcaster’s office and a reporter’s home over a leaked government document sparking protests by mainstream media and rights groups.

A former army lawyer was charged over the leaks, and several journalists may be charged.

The campaign noted that over the past 20 years, the federal government had introduced some 60 laws to muzzle the Press.

If such draconian laws are passed, Australia may soon become the world’s most secretive democracy, said ABC’s managing director David Anderson.

The campaign called for reforms to protect public interest journalism in Australia. It said the culture of secrecy preventing journalists from questioning the powerful must stop.

Citing examples of government secrecy: the campaign’s website said officials do not reveal information on abuse of senior family members in homes.

Threat to Press freedom became the talking point after Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst on June 4 this year in connection with her 2018 report on a federal plan to expand surveillance on citizens.

A day later, AFP raided the Sydney headquarters of broadcaster ABC over news series it telecast in 2017 on alleged war crimes committed by Australia’s Special Forces in Afghanistan.

A former military lawyer was tried for the leak of defence documents to the ABC.

The raids were seen as an attempt by the government to silence whistle-blowers and journalists.

Home ministry and national security agency officials defended the raids, citing national security.

Responding to reforms proposed by media houses with regard to investigative reports of a public-interest nature, ministry and security agency officials said they do not deserve special treatment if national security is involved.

However, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton directed AFP to consider the importance of a free and open press in a democracy like Australia before investigating media houses.

AFP chief Reece Kershaw said they are reviewing the handling of sensitive investigations.