Dutton After Journalism Crackdown: “Nobody is above the law”

After massive police raids conducted on journalists, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton appears to not be backing down.

The Australian government is currently cracking down on journalism in the country. After passing the anti-encryption laws in a rushed process last year, those laws are now being used to circumvent protections afforded to journalists in the country. Yesterday, we reported on high profile police raids on various properties related to journalism. Multiple reporters have since been arrested in the crackdown.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is denouncing the police raids. They are demanding that the government drop the investigation and put in place legal reforms to protect journalists. From Federal News Network:

Executives of Australian Broadcasting Corp. and News Corp. Australia have expressed their frustration that a month after raids on ABC’s Sydney headquarters and a News Corp. political editor’s Canberra home, “the fate of our journalists remains unclear.”

They had joined with other media organization to demand legal reforms that would exempt journalists from national security laws passed since 2012 that “would put them in jail for doing their jobs.”

Attorney-General Christian Porter, who would need to authorize any prosecution of reporters involved, said last month “there is absolutely no suggestion that any journalist is the subject of the present investigations.”

But ABC Managing Director David Anderson revealed on Thursday that he had written to the minister responsible for police, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, calling for police to drop their investigation of two ABC reporters, Dan Oakes and Sam Clark.

The ABC had asked that “any action against the pair cease. Failing that, that the ABC be briefed on when and how the AFP action will be resolved,” Anderson said in a staff email, referring to Australian Federal Police.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has been quick to respond to this. He appears to be unrepentant and even went to far as to suggests that the journalists are lawbreakers. From SMH:

Mr Dutton on Friday rejected demands from media chiefs to drop any action against the reporters.

“Nobody is above the law and the police have a job to do under the law,” he told the Today program.

“I think it is up to the police to investigate, to do it independently and make a decision about whether or not they prosecute.”

Critically, Mr Dutton added: “These are laws that go back decades in western democracies like ours where, if you’ve got top secret documents and they’ve been leaked, it is an offence under the law and police have an obligation to investigate a matter referred to them … and they’ll do that.”

The case is now becoming a political one in the country. Anthony Albanese, leader of the Australian Labour Party, is demanding answers from the government. From The Guardian:

Albanese said the attorney general, Christian Porter, needed to explain the AFP’s actions given he had previously said journalists were not likely to face potential prosecution.

“I really think that the attorney general, Mr Porter, needs to explain the gap that’s there between what he says is happening and what is actually happening. He says that journalists aren’t the target of these investigations, but the fact that there was a demand by the AFP for records of flights from a journalist from Qantas shows that’s not the case,” Albanese said.

“We’re concerned about whistleblowers, as well as journalists, being targeted in a way that is not appropriate and the government needs to explain what the circumstances of these AFP demands were.”

In response to the raids, others are calling for greater protections for journalists in the country. Peter Fray opined the following on World Politics Review:

The real problem in Australia is that it does not have a bill of rights, a first amendment or a right to freedom of speech that is constitutionally enshrined or legally codified. There are some protections for journalists and media outlets, but there are also several ways in which journalists are constrained in their work. The recent raids on journalists’ homes and offices are but one example of this.

Australia needs a media freedom bill—an all-encompassing piece of legislation that would enshrine the idea of a free press and prevent the passage of laws that work against it. The Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, which was founded by the Australian journalist and academic Peter Greste, has proposed just such a bill in a recent white paper. Greste knows from personal experience just how important press freedom is: As a correspondent for Al Jazeera, he spent 14 months in an Egyptian jail from 2013 until 2015, simply for doing his job.

Some may say that the proposal for a press freedom bill is naïve, but I believe it simply requires political will at all levels of society for it to be enacted. That said, I am not hopeful. In recent years, governments on both sides of the political spectrum have shown themselves willing to use national security to justify laws that curb press freedom. There has also been little appetite, until recently, to do something about the record-high payouts in defamation cases, which also has a chilling effect on media organizations.

One thing is for certain, things are escalating quickly in the country. It shows one major reason why the anti-encryption laws are problematic from a free speech standpoint.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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