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Christian Porter offering protection to the journalists raided by the AFP seems like a win, but the government’s policy on whistleblowers remains very much the same.
Christian Porter, the Attorney-General has apparently offered the journalists raided by the Australian Federal Police in June partial protection, instructing federal prosecutors not to charge them without his prior approval.
“The direction means where the CDPP independently considers that there is a public interest in a prosecution for one of the relevant offences involving a journalist, the consent of the Attorney-General will also be required as a separate and additional safeguard,” Mr Porter said in a statement.
“This will allow the most detailed and cautious consideration of how an allegation of a serious offence should be balanced with our commitment to freedom of the press.”
Back in June, the Australian Federal Police turned up on the doorstep of Newscorp journalist Annika Smethurst, in reference to her 2018 article that reported that the defence and home affairs ministries had discussed vast new powers to allow the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to spy on Australian citizens. This, per the article, would represent the first time the government has done such a thing.
Under the (now binned) plan, spies would be allowed to covertly access emails, bank accounts and text messages pending approval from Dutton’s portfolio. The current law allows the AFP and ASIO to investigate Australians with a warrant and seek advice from the ASD, with the latter institution not able to produce intelligence on citizens. The new plan would subvert that.
Via a statement, News Corp Australia said that the raid was “outrageous and heavy-handed…this raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths.”
The trade union for the media, the MEAA angrily stated that the move “is an outrageous attack on press freedom that seeks to punish a journalist for reporting a legitimate news story that was clearly in the public interest.”
MEAA statement: Police raid on a journalist’s home “is an outrageous attack on press freedom that seeks to punish a journalist for reporting a legitimate news story that was clearly in the public interest.”https://t.co/Cehsf5A9Nt#MEAAmedia pic.twitter.com/9DrleT4XFO
— MEAA (@withMEAA) June 4, 2019
At the time, Marcus Strom, the president of the MEAA wrote, “when you go after whistleblowers you are going after journalism. When you seek to muzzle the media and deny their right to subject the powerful to scrutiny, you are attacking democracy and the public’s right to know.”
While Porter has protected (or, adding another layer) the sanctity of journalism, it’s difficult not to be cynical. To our government in current year, their greatest antagonist is the whistleblower, and you can be damn sure that who leaked the Afghan Files will continue to be their focus.
The Assange situation is also indicative of the government’s view of whistleblowers. As an Australian citizen, we could offer him asylum, but clearly, those in charge do not care. From there on, the tone is familiar. We register the raid, we get angry, we hear nothing else. Another contemporary example would be Richard Boyle, the chap who exposed the Australian Taxation Office’s questionable debt-recovery tactics, who earned himself a newspaper article in the face of 161 years in prison. Witness K, who revealed our government’s mission to spy on Timor-Leste during resource negotiations, remains shrouded in mystery, in name, in law, and indeed in the discussion, as they remain conspicuously absent from the pages of our main news publications. The same holds true for the NBN employee who leaked the finer points of the plot, resulting in yet another AFP endorsed knock on the door.
Those in power protect the guilty and prosecute those who illuminate wrongdoing. They will continue to do that if we fail to continue asking questions, even if clemency is offered to people who shouldn’t have been persecuted in the first place.