The Australian Federal Police raided the ABC’s offices in relation to a story on war crimes in Afghanistan on Wednesday, just one day after they raided News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home over a story about a government plan to spy on ordinary Australians.
Morrison, who initially said he was “never troubled” by the law being upheld, has now distanced the government from the police operation.
“First of all let me say that my government is absolutely committed to freedom of the press, secondly these are matters that were being pursued by the AFP operationally at complete arm’s length from the government, not in the knowledge of the government, not at the instigation of government ministers,” he said after D-Day commemorations in the UK on Wednesday.
Morrison said he understood the raids have caused anxiety from the press and more broadly, and had spoken with media organisation editors and briefed the opposition about the situation.
“I can understand, particularly for the journalists involved, this would have been very upsetting and a very anxious and concerning event, of course it would be,” he said.
He also clarified that the investigation had been triggered by referrals from departmental heads before August 2018, when he became prime minister.
Morrison said there were checks and balances around police investigations and no one in his government had any prior knowledge of the raids.
“It was not referred by government ministers or at their direction, it was referred by departmental secretaries,” he said.
“And that is the process that departmental secretaries follow where they believe that there have been potential breaches and that’s why the AFP is the agency that then investigates those and they are the ones who decide how they carry matters forward
“And for government ministers to be placed in the middle of that I think would be very troubling and that is what has not occurred here.”
Morrison’s comments came as the ABC and AFP agreed to a two-week hiatus in which a search warrant served to the national broadcaster during a raid on its’ Sydney offices can be challenged.
The BBC issued a statement on Wednesday evening, labelling the ABC raid an “attack on press freedom which we at the BBC find deeply troubling”.
“At a time when the media is becoming less free across the world, it is highly worrying if a public broadcaster is being targeted for doing its job of reporting in the public interest,” it said.
ABC head of investigative journalism John Lyons on Wednesday said he’d “never seen an assault on the media as savage as this one we’re seeing today”.
The warrant – targeting reporters Dan Oakes and Sam Clark as well as news director Gaven Morris – allowed the AFP “to not just take and seize but to delete and to change official ABC documents”, Lyons told ABC TV.
The ABC assisted forensic digital officers in sorting through the material, but could yet refuse to hand over any documents and instead contest the warrant in court.
The ABC’s lawyers took out many documents on the basis of legal privilege, Lyons posted on Twitter.
AFP officers had left the ABC’s Ultimo offices by just after 8.30pm on Wednesday, after both parties agreed to the delay.
During this time, any documents which are handed over under the warrant can be challenged, or the entire warrant can be challenged, Lyons posted.
The ABC and AFP agreed on documents which fit the warrant.
These were sealed and the AFP is not allowed to open the documents for two weeks, which gives the ABC “time to challenge,” Lyons posted.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said he had no involvement in the AFP investigations and his office was only informed after the two warrants were executed.
The AFP insisted there was “no link” between the ABC and Smethurst raids and confirmed Mr Dutton “was not notified prior to the execution of the warrants”.
“Both, however, relate to separate allegations of publishing classified material contrary to provisions of the Crimes Act which is an extremely serious matter that has the potential to undermine Australia’s national security,” an AFP spokesperson said.
In a statement, ABC managing director David Anderson said the raid “raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press”.
The ABC stood by its journalists, would protect its sources and continue to report “without fear or favour” on national security and intelligence issues, he added.
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