The Australian Federal Police searched the home, computer and mobile phone of Canberra-based News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst on Monday, over a 2018 story detailing an alleged government proposal to spy on Australians.
Her article had included images of letters between the heads of the Home Affairs and Defence departments, discussing potential new powers for the Australian Signals Directorate.
The powers would have allowed the ASD’s cyber sleuths to monitor Australian citizens and businesses on home soil, rather than being limited to gathering intelligence on foreigners, the story said.
Defence secretary Greg Moriarty, Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo and ASD director Mike Burgess released a joint statement rejecting the story’s content after it was published last year.
The raid has been widely panned by Smethurst’s employer News Corp, the media union, press freedom advocates and the federal opposition.
But Morrison, who’s on his first official visit to the UK as PM, indicated he was comfortable with what happened.
“Australians believe strongly in the freedom of the press, we have clear rules and protections for freedom of the press and there are also clear rules protecting Australia’s national security. And everyone should operate in accordance with all those laws passed by our parliament,” he said.
When pressed on whether it “bothered” him to see a reporter’s home being raided, the prime minister appeared unconcerned.
“It never troubles me that our laws are being upheld,” Morrison smiled.
News Corp labelled the raid “outrageous and heavy handed”.
“This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths,” a spokesperson said.
“What’s gone on this morning sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia. This will chill public interest reporting.”
Marcus Strom from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance said the government was trying to harass and intimidate journalists into withholding information from the public.
Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton said the AFP was abusing national security powers to reinforce “a culture of secrecy and lack of accountability”.
The AFP said the raid on Smethurst’s home was in relation to “alleged unauthorised disclosure of national security information” and that no arrests were expected.
The prime minister said he supported the powers police and security agencies have under current laws, and added there were no government plans to give greater protections to journalists.
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