Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy



On Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABCs Sydney headquarters in relation to the 2017 “Afghan files” report.
AAP/David Gray

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, The University of Queensland

The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.

On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.

This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.

Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.

And then on Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABC’s Sydney headquarters. This dramatic development was in connection with the 2017 “Afghan files” report based on “hundreds of pages of secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC”. These documents revealed disturbing allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces.

The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.

The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.

But to those familiar with the ever-expanding field of Australian national security law, these developments were unlikely to surprise. In particular, enhanced data surveillance powers and a new suite of secrecy offences introduced in late 2018 had sparked widespread concern over the future of public interest journalism in Australia.

The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.

Source confidentiality

Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared

The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.

Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.

One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.




Read more:
Data retention plan amended for journalists, but is it enough?


The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.

This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.

So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.

This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.

Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.

After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.

But in 2018, the government went some way to closing down this option when it introduced the complex and highly controversial Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018.

As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.

It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.

However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.

Secrecy offences

In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.

This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.




Read more:
Government needs to slow down on changes to spying and foreign interference laws


But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.

Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.

Protecting media freedom

Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.

In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.

National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.

And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.

JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.

One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.

Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.The Conversation

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, Senior Lecturer, TC Beirne School of Law, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The case of Michaelia Cash and her leaking adviser illustrates a failure of ministerial responsibility



File 20171026 28036 pjf32w.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Michaelia Cash has refused to resign over misleading parliament, claiming she was unaware of one of her staffer’s actions.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Yee-Fui Ng, RMIT University

The federal opposition is continuing to call for Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s resignation, claiming she misled parliament this week after repeatedly telling a Senate estimates committee that neither she nor her office had any involvement in tipping off the media about a police raid.

Cash’s senior media adviser, David De Garis, later confessed he had leaked information about the raid on the Australian Workers Union’s offices to the press. Cash retracted her statements and De Garis resigned.

Labor frontbencher Tony Burke argued that “the wrong person has resigned”. But Cash has refused to resign, claiming she was unaware of her staffer’s actions. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has defended Cash, saying she acted properly.

Who are these advisers?

Ministerial advisers are partisan staff who are personally appointed by ministers and work out of the ministers’ private offices.

The number of Commonwealth ministerial staff has increased over the years from 155 in 1972 to 423 in 2015.

Ministerial advisers undertake a wide range of functions. Tony Nutt, a long-time former adviser, has said:

… a ministerial adviser deals with the press. A ministerial adviser handles the politics. A ministerial adviser talks to the union. All of that happens every day of the week, everywhere in Australia all the time. Including frankly, the odd bit of, you know, ancient Spanish practices and a bit of bastardry on the way through. That’s all the nature of politics.

The question is what happens if advisers overstep their roles?

Ministerial responsibility and political advisers

According to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, ministers are responsible to parliament for the acts of their departments.

British academic Sir Ivor Jennings wrote that the “act of every civil servant is by convention regarded as the act of the minister”. And British MP Lord Morrison proclaimed that the “minister is responsible for every stamp stuck on an envelope”.

But it is doubtful that this principle has ever reflected reality. It is rare for ministers to resign or even accept responsibility for the actions of their department, where they were not personally involved.

Ministers should also technically take responsibility for the actions of advisers in their own offices, who are at an even higher level of direct ministerial control than departments.

Even more than public servants, advisers are seen to be acting as alter egos of their ministers. This means ministers should be accountable to parliament for the actions of their advisers – even those they did not authorise.

But what happens in reality is that ministers tend to use their advisers as scapegoats and blame them for controversial events. This is consistent with “public choice” theory, which predicts that politicians have the incentive to deflect all the blame that comes in their direction while accepting the credit for anything that goes right.

How are advisers regulated?

Australia has inadequate legal and political regulation of ministerial advisers. They are subject to a Statement of Standards, which sets out the standards they are supposed to meet in preforming their duties.

Sanctions under the standards are handled internally within the executive through the Prime Minister’s Office. This means any breaches of the standards by ministerial advisers would be handled behind closed doors, without the scrutiny of parliament or any external bodies.

Ministerial advisers have also refused to appear before parliamentary committees on their minister’s instruction. This has impeded the investigations of significant parliamentary committees, including the Children Overboard affair.

Australia thus has minimal legal and political regulation of ministerial advisers. This has led to an accountability deficit, where ministers have been able to utilise their advisers to escape responsibility for public controversies and scandals.

How can we fix the system?

Other Westminster jurisdictions have more stringent regulation of political advisers.

There are a few forms of regulation of advisers. The first is restrictions on the employment of advisers, either through a cap on the numbers of advisers, as in the UK, or a cap on the total budget for advisers, as in Canada.

Second, regulations can restrict the actions of advisers themselves. For example, in the UK, there is a prohibition on advisers leaking confidential or sensitive information, which would have been applicable in this scandal.

Canada has post-employment restrictions banning advisers from becoming lobbyists for five years after ceasing their employment.

Third, transparency measures also exist, such as requirements that departments disclose all meetings that advisers have with the media (as in the UK) and what hospitality these advisers receive (in the UK and Canada).

Ideally, the Australian regulatory framework should be reformed so it is policed externally from the core executive. In Canada, the conflict of interest and lobbying provisions are policed by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who has been independent and ready to criticise the government.

And, in the UK, the rules provide for political advisers to appear before parliamentary committees. Similar guidelines could be drafted to facilitate the appearance of advisers before Australian parliamentary committees.

The ConversationIn the last 40 years, ministerial advisers have become an integral part of Australia’s system of government. But the law and rules have lagged behind, and our system should be reformed to ensure greater accountability.

Yee-Fui Ng, Lecturer, Graduate School of Business and Law, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.