08 Jun Liberals call for media protection after AFP raids
Scott Morrison is facing pressure from Liberal MPs to review legal protections for journalists following federal police raids targeting News Corp and ABC reporters.
The Prime Minister yesterday said it was too early to consider changes to the law, repeating his claim that journalists already had protections “no one else gets”.
With the government under attack from media outlets and Labor, Coalition MPs said the issue of journalists’ protections should be referred to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security or the Law Reform Commission.
As ABC chairwoman Ita Buttrose claimed federal police raids were aimed at “muzzling” the public broadcaster, former spy boss Dennis Richardson blasted assertions that press freedom was under threat.
Victorian senator James Paterson yesterday became the first Liberal MP to publicly back calls for a review into further protections for journalists. “It would be healthy and timely to soberly examine the way that national security laws in the digital era impact on the ability of journalists to do their jobs and the right of the public to be informed,” Senator Paterson said.
Speaking in Singapore, Mr Morrison said Australians believed in both press freedom and the rule of law, and that journalists already had legal protections.
“It’s important to allow the AFP to continue to do their work,” Mr Morrison said. “I’ve made it very clear to editors that if there are any complaints about the way the investigation is conducted, then they are free to raise those issues. I think Australians carry these two things closely — they believe in press freedoms but they also believe that no one is bigger than the law.
“There are specific protections built into the law for journalists that no one else gets.”
Labor has called on Mr Morrison to defend press freedom but has not outlined further protections for journalists. Opposition home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally said on Wednesday that parliament had “got the balance right” on national security laws passed last year.
Liberal MP Tim Wilson, a former human rights commissioner, said he wanted to ensure press freedom was protected.
“As someone who believes in strong national security laws and the freedom of the press I’m watching these events unfold hawkishly to ensure both are achieved,” Mr Wilson said.
After the raids on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters and the home of News Corp national political editor Annika Smethurst, media outlets have called on the government to stop “intimidation” of journalists over stories involving national security.
In a statement yesterday, Ms Buttrose said she would “fight” for press freedom after the raids. “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,” she said.
Mr Richardson, who served as ASIO director-general from 1996 to 2005, yesterday fiercely rejecting claims democracy was under threat as a result of the raids and said critics of the AFP needed to “have a Bex and a lie down”.
The former defence secretary and ambassador to Washington warned bureaucrats they were obligated not to leak classified material and “should think pretty damn carefully before they do”.
Mr Richardson also took aim at The New York Times for publishing a piece suggesting Australia was the most secretive democracy in the world. “Democracy is not under threat in our own country. And any observations to the contrary from The New York Times or whatever is simply bizarre,” he said.
Former national security monitor Bret Walker SC, who was in Victoria this week representing George Pell, said he could not “readily imagine a satisfactory answer” as to why the AFP decided to divert so many of its resources to this week’s raids, but said parliament, not police, was to blame for the law. “I can rattle off any number of things which would appear to be better subject matter for the considerable expenditures involved,” Mr Walker said.
He also hit out at the government’s culture of secrecy: “It is strange to me, and very disturbing that there should be a generalised reflex which permeates the drinking water in Canberra, that all these activities should be secret.”
Labor leader Anthony Albanese yesterday said press freedom was under threat in a fiery television debate with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
This article was originally published in The Australian.