Call for public interest test on journo raid warrants

Warrants relating to investigations into journalists who receive national security leaks should be run past a public interest advocate, a report by parliament’s intelligence and security committee has recommended.

Photo: AAP/Rod McGuirk

Photo: AAP/Rod McGuirk

The inquiry followed raids on the ABC and News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst in June 2019.

The Australian Federal Police has since decided not to lay charges against Smethurst for reporting on secret government plans to expand the powers of a spy agency.

But it is still pursuing ABC journalist Dan Oakes over 2017 news reports based on leaked Defence Department papers revealing Australian defence personnel may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

The committee’s report, released on Wednesday, said it should be mandatory for a public interest advocate to consider “all overt and covert warrants that relate to a person working in a professional capacity as a journalist or a media organisation, where the warrant is related to the investigation of an unauthorised disclosure of government information”.

As well, journalist information warrants – which could include phone and computer tapping – should only be available in relation to the investigation of a serious offence punishable by jail for at least three years.

Intelligence agency ASIO should be compelled to include in its annual report the number of times it applied for a warrant in relation to journalists.

The report also called for the harmonisation of state and territory shield laws and a review by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security into whether documents are being inappropriately hidden from public using the excuse of “national security”.

“One of the primary objectives of this inquiry has been to strike a sensible balance between ensuring that the media can keep Australians informed and governments accountable on the one hand, and the interests of national security on the other,” the report said.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said journalists should not face the prospect of being charged, or going to jail, for doing their jobs.

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He said broader reforms were needed but making warrants contestable was a starting point.


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