Dutton defends penalties for media over leaks

Peter Dutton has stressed there’s nothing new about the idea that a journalist can go to jail for publishing top secret government documents, saying the suggestion there should be no penalty goes against “tradition”.

Jun 07, 2019, updated Jun 07, 2019
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton says whistleblowers have legal protection and the government defended media right. Photo: AAP/Dan Peled

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton says whistleblowers have legal protection and the government defended media right. Photo: AAP/Dan Peled

Asked whether he would be comfortable if that happened, the Home Affairs minister suggested the priority was the leaking of highly classified documents.

“I’m concerned that if people are leaking top-secret documents that that can affect our national security,” he told Nine’s Today program on Friday.

The Australian Federal Police hasn’t ruled out laying charges following back-to-back raids this week involving two media outlets.

Federal police are investigating not only the leaking of documents by Commonwealth officers but also the publication of the materials following referrals from – according to Dutton – the Defence Department secretary and the director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate.

Search warrants were executed on the Canberra home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the Sydney headquarters of the ABC.

The ABC was raided over 2017 stories on allegations Australian soldiers may have carried out unlawful killings in Afghanistan, based on leaked Defence papers.

Smethurst’s home was raided over the 2018 publication of a leaked plan to allow the ASD to spy on Australians.

Dutton, the minister responsible for the AFP, says the laws that can put journalists behind bars for publishing stories with top secret information date back many years.

“That there should be no penalty or consequence for that would go against tradition in our country that spans back many, many decades and the same case in other democracies around the world,” he said.

“There are good reasons and long-standing reasons why a country like us or New Zealand would classify documents in such a way.

“The federal police have an obligation to investigate a matter that’s been referred to them.”

But he insisted there were legal protections for whistleblowers and that the government defended media rights.

“We do have protections enshrined in law and we value a very healthy fourth estate. There’s no question of that.”

However, the ABC’s chair has told the Federal Government she has grave concerns over this week’s police raid on the national broadcaster.

Ita Buttrose says Wednesday’s Australian Federal Police raid on the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters was unprecedented.

Buttrose on Friday revealed she had a frank conversation with Communications Minister Paul Fletcher about the incidents.

“I said the raid, in its very public form and in the sweeping nature of the information sought, was clearly designed to intimidate,” she said in a statement.

“It is impossible to ignore the seismic nature of this week’s events: raids on two separate media outfits on consecutive days is a blunt signal of adverse consequences for news organisations who make life uncomfortable for policymakers and regulators by shining lights in dark corners and holding the powerful to account.”

She asked for a guarantee the ABC would not be subjected to raids of this kind in the future – an assurance Fletcher refused to give.

Buttrose said the onus should always be on the public’s right to know and if that wasn’t reflected in current laws, they should change.

“In my view, legitimate journalistic endeavours that expose flawed decision-making or matters that policymakers and public servants would simply prefer were secret should not automatically and conveniently be classed as issues of national security,” she said.

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“As ABC chair, I will fight any attempts to muzzle the national broadcaster or interfere with its obligations to the Australian public.

“Independence is not exercised by degrees. It is absolute.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused Dutton of consistently trying to avoid scrutiny of his portfolio.

“What we’re seeing here is no-one in the government being prepared to defend the role that media has in our democracy, which is essential,” he said.

“What we need to do is have a mature debate about what the role of the media is in our society, and their capacity to actually provide appropriate scrutiny of government and of opposition.”

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller described the AFP actions as dangerous.

“It is a danger to our democracy when professional news reporting is at risk of being criminalised,” he said on Thursday night.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he’s open to reviewing the legislation underpinning the AFP searches.

“If there are issues regarding particular laws they will be raised in the normal way that they should be in a democracy,” he told reporters in the UK this week.

“They are matters I am always open to discuss.”

Labor is considering backing a Senate inquiry into the raids proposed by the Greens.

The AFP has left the door open to carrying out further raids as part of its investigations.


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