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Australian police search public broadcaster headquarters amid media crackdown

Police targeted three journalists involved in a two-year-old investigative report.

Australian Federal Police arrive at ABC offices in Sydney
Australian Federal Police arrive at ABC offices in Sydney
Image: John Lyons/Twitter.com

POLICE IN AUSTRALIA have raided the headquarters of public broadcaster ABC - the second high-profile probe into news outlets in 24 hours.

ABC executives said police searched the corporation’s offices in Sydney today, targeting three journalists involved in a two-year-old investigative report.

In 2017, ABC obtained government documents that showed Australian special forces had killed innocent men and children in Afghanistan.

The Australian Federal Police said the search was “in relation to allegations of publishing classified material, contrary to provisions of the Crimes Act 1914.”

ABC executive editor John Lyons said the search warrant demands access to reporters’ handwritten notes, emails, story drafts, footage and passwords, among other things.

“It is highly unusual for the national broadcaster to be raided in this way,” said managing director David Anderson, as the organisation tried to win legal redress. 

A day earlier police raided a journalist’s home in Canberra over a report that detailed the authorities’ bid to gain powers to spy on Australian citizens communications at home.

Both stories involved sensitive and potentially classified materials and were embarrassing to the Australian authorities and the security services in particular.

‘Still staggered’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has tried to distance himself from the raids, which come just days after his re-election, insisting they were police, not government, matters.

“Australia believes strongly in the freedom of the press and we have clear rules and protections for the freedom of the press,” he said during a visit to London. 

“There are also clear rules protecting Australia’s national security and everybody should operate in accordance with all of those laws passed by our parliament.”

Shadow Home Affairs minister, the Labor party’s Kristina Keneally, demanded an explanation about why the raids occurred. 

“Protecting our national security is complex work, but it always must have the right checks and balances.”

Although the press in Australia can report largely free of political interference, strict defamation laws, court gag orders and state security statutes affect what can be said in print and broadcast.

ABC’s Lyons said on Twitter that he was “still staggered by the power of this warrant.”

“It allows the AFP to ‘add, copy, delete or alter” material in the ABC’s computers. All Australians, please think about that: as of this moment, the AFP has the power to delete material in the ABC’s computers. Australia 2019.”

Australia’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance union branded the raids a “disturbing attempt to intimidate legitimate news journalism that is in the public interest.”

“Police raiding journalists is becoming normalised and it has to stop… it seems that when the truth embarrasses the government, the result is the Federal Police will come knocking at your door.”

The raid comes one week after an investigation into two journalists involved in a documentary about the 1994 Loughinisland massacre in Northern Ireland was dropped. 

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were arrested last September by police over the alleged theft of the confidential documents but were released on bail. 

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