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Australia’s Media Raids and the Decline of Press Freedom Worldwide

American journalists have strong constitutional protections, but even the U.S. is part of a global trend among autocracies and democracies alike.

ABC editorial director Craig McMurtrie speaks to the media after the police raid on June 5. (Getty Images)

Americans with insomnia and a Twitter account may have seen a disturbing sight on Tuesday night. Half a world away, the Australian Federal Police, the country’s equivalent of the FBI, raided the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s equivalent of the BBC. John Lyons, the executive editor of ABC, published a blow-by-blow account on Twitter as AFP agents executed a search warrant against the media organization.

At issue, according to the ABC, was a story published by the outlet in 2017 that detailed episodes in which Australian special forces in Afghanistan killed unarmed people and children. The story came in part from a leak of hundreds of secret military files. Australian law grants law-enforcement agencies broad authority to prosecute whistleblowers, and the police combed through thousands of files during their search of ABC’s emails, drafts, raw footage, and other sensitive files.

It’s not unusual for journalists to face such treatment in more authoritarian countries, which makes it especially disturbing to see them subjected to it in a free nation like Australia. It shows that even liberal-democratic governments will use their power to suppress legitimate journalism, a lesson that America is learning in more subtle ways.

The ABC raid wasn’t an isolated incident. One day earlier, Australian police raided the home of News Corp Australia editor Annika Smethurst as part of a leak investigation. In an article published in the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph last year, Smethurst had reported that Australian ministers were crafting proposals to give an Australian spy agency sweeping new powers to surveil Australian citizens. Police spent hours at Smethurst’s home while searching her computer and cell phone. They had the support of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose center-right Liberal Party won an upset election victory last month. “It never troubles me that our laws are being upheld,” he told reporters.

It troubles Sarah Repucci, who studies democracy and human rights at Freedom House. “I think that any raid on a journalist’s office is an attack on the ability of the journalist to get independent information out to the population,” she said. She framed the raids in the context of a broader global rollback on press freedom, one that’s gathered strength with the proliferation of right-wing populism in recent years, as Freedom House detailed in a report published on Wednesday (with the ominous title, “A Downward Spiral”).

Quasi-authoritarian populist figures like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have used less overt tactics to undermine independent media outlets than outright dictators, albeit to the same effect. “We’ve been seeing press freedom decline over the last decade, so this isn’t new,” Repucci said. “What is new and a serious concern is that we’re seeing more and more democracies pushing down on press freedoms at home, and if democracies aren’t upholding press freedoms, then we can’t expect dictators to do so either.”

Australian government officials, including Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, claimed on Wednesday that they did not know about the raids in advance. Dutton nonetheless praised law-enforcement officials for carrying them out and downplayed the threat to press freedom that they represented. “The AFP have an important job to undertake and it is entirely appropriate they conduct their investigations independently and, in fact, it is their statutory obligation,” he told reporters.

In theory, Australia is a democratic country. It has free elections, an independent judiciary, and civilian control of the military. When it comes to press freedom, however, Australia is a dismal backwater. It’s a country where, for example, journalists face substantial fines for covering the verdict of a major criminal trial: More than 30 reporters and news outlets are facing contempt hearings for allegedly reporting on Cardinal George Pell’s conviction on child sexual-abuse charges last December. Pell was the highest-ranking Catholic prelate to ever face charges for abusing children. His trial was a matter of immense public interest. But the presiding judge ordered journalists not to report his conviction out of fear of tainting the jury pool for a future Pell trial, even though every Aussie with Internet access knew the outcome. The journalists stand accused of helping foreign news outlets publish the verdict.

As I noted earlier this year, backbreaking deference to the privacy and reputations of powerful Australians is a hallmark of the country’s approach to press freedom. Earlier this year, actor Geoffrey Rush won a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the Telegraph, under Australia’s notoriously strict libel laws. The newspaper published multiple articles in 2017 while the #MeToo movement gathered steam that alleged Rush had sexually harassed an unnamed co-star during a King Lear production in Sydney two years earlier. Even though actress Eryn Jean Norvill came forward to testify during the trial about her experiences, the judge rejected the Telegraph’s truth defense and ruled in favor of Rush, describing the reports as journalism “of the very worst kind.”

Americans can take some comfort that the First Amendment provides robust legal protections for press freedom; Australia does not even have a Bill of Rights. While Trump has often railed against the strength of U.S. libel laws and threatened to rework them, those laws are written at the state level and not by a Congress he could bully and intimidate. And the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1964’s New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, in which the justices ruled unanimously the newspaper’s favor and established the “actual malice” standard for libel law, would almost certainly forestall his efforts to water down libel laws if he had the opportunity. (Justice Clarence Thomas recently criticized that decision, though none of the other justices joined him.)

But there is also plenty of reason for concern. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department mounted a widely criticized campaign to crack down on national-security leaks to journalists. Federal prosecutors tried to compel journalists to name their sources in open court, searched their phone records, and wielded the Espionage Act as a cudgel against government whistleblowers. The Trump administration built on those precedents to open a wave of leak investigations. Last month, the Justice Department charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for his alleged role in soliciting a wave of leaked military documents in 2010.

Assange is hardly a sympathetic figure. Swedish prosecutors want to extradite the Australian-born anti-secrecy activist to face sexual-assault charges in that country. He also played a role in Moscow’s campaign to subvert the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the legal case against him would criminalize routine methods used by investigative and national-security reporters. Assange’s prosecution and Trump’s rhetoric may not be as dramatic as a phalanx of FBI agents storming into The Washington Post’s newsroom or CNN’s studios. But they could be almost as deleterious to American press freedoms in the long run.

That, in turn, undermines people’s ability to learn about their government and influence it. “It’s important to keep in mind that threats to press freedom are bad in and of themselves, but they’re especially bad because they’re so dangerous to democracy,” Repucci told me. “I think we take our democracy for granted here, and we can’t do that. Democracies have to be nurtured or supported if they’re going to continue. If we value our freedom, we have to stand up for it.”