Australia crosses the line with raids on journalists


The people’s right to know what its government is doing – especially behind closed doors – is sacrosanct and the very foundation of democracy. Thus, an unfettered press is absolutely necessary to provide objective, factual reporting on the goings-on in the public sector.

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s unwarranted, unjustified attacks on reporters he considers the enemy, and his political drumbeat of “fake news” have had a chilling effect on the press and have contributed to the public’s distrust of the Fourth Estate.

Trump often has contended that America’s libel laws are a “sham” and should be changed to make it easier for people, especially public officials, to sue news organizations and publishers for defamation.

Such a blatant, unprecedented war on the press by the president of the United States has grabbed headlines around the world and has given rise to copycat leaders who also want to shackle reporters.

This phenomenon was on full display earlier this month in Australia when the government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison targeted two major media organizations for their reporting on issues that were clearly in the pubic interest.

First, federal police raided the Canberra home of Sunday Telegraph Political Editor Annika Smethurst looking for evidence relating to a story she had written more than 12 months earlier.

Smethurst had revealed that Australian Signals Directorate planned to broaden its powers to spy on citizens without their knowledge. The story was published in April 2018 and immediately triggered a police investigation.

A second raid a day later occurred in Sydney at Australia’s national public broadcaster, the ABC. The raid related to an investigation about alleged unlawful killings in Afghanistan by Australian Special Forces broadcast in July 2017.

The ABC, unlike Smethurst and the Sunday Telegraph’s owner, News Corp., was aware the search was coming.

John Lyons, head of investigations at the national broadcaster, remained in the room while police worked and live tweeted Wednesday’s operation, according to The Guardian, a British newspaper.

Lyons, a veteran journalist, said he was “staggered” by the scope of the search warrant.

Of greatest concern is the fact that the warrant allowed police to “add, copy, delete or alter” material in the ABC’s computers.

But a comment from Lyons about the raid suggests that he may be unaware of the Trump administration’s war against the mainstream media.

“This would not be allowed to happen in the United States under their constitution,” Lyons said while the raid was in progress. “My question is why is this allowed to happen in Australia in 2019.”

President Trump has made no secret of the fact that he finds parts of the U.S. Constitution inconvenient and outdated.

As for the courts ruling against the White House if raids such as those in Australia were launched in the U.S., we are acutely aware that Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate have stacked the federal benches with ideologically like-minded judges.

While we remain confident that the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are not as cavalier as the president when it comes to the First Amendment of the Constitution, the prospects of lower court judges throwing caution to the wind is troubling.

CHANGE IN ATTITUDE

The raids on the mainstream press in Australia also reflect a change in attitude by government toward reporters who are in the cross-hairs of high-ranking public officials.

They are obviously emboldened by the fact that newspaper readership around the globe is down and that social media has become the main source of news for many people.

Thus, there isn’t the level of anxiety about doing battle with the press.

It is the intimidation factor that has cast a pall over many newsrooms.

Consider this comment from Sunday Telegraph’s Smethurst as the raid was taking place in her home:

“I was very stressed when they were on my phone. Obviously as a journalist, my business model relies on people being able to ring me and talk to me anonymously, with that information not being seen by anyone else, then all of a sudden, police had access to it, and it was an incredible invasion of privacy.”

It is noteworthy that Prime Minister Morrison, who describes himself as a pragmatic conservative, has called for a social media global crackdown. He has sent a letter to Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, asking the G-20 chairman to make the issue central to the world leaders’ summit this month in Osaka.

Morrison’s move was prompted by the March attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The shooter live streamed his killing spree on Facebook.

However, a distinction must be made between the traditional press and social media sites.

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