Australian police won't charge reporter after leak probe
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian police said Wednesday that they had decided against charging a journalist over a newspaper article she wrote more than two years ago following a high-profile investigation that triggered a national storm over press freedom.
Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney said no one would be charged following an investigation that spanned 25 months because of a “lack of evidence.”
Annika Smethurst’s article, citing “top secret letters” between the heads of the Defense and Home Affairs departments, reported plans to create new espionage powers that would allow an intelligence agency to spy on Australian citizens for the first time. It was published in News Corp. Australia's Sunday papers on April 29, 2018.
Australian Federal Police responded with raids on Smethurst’s Canberra home on June 4 last year with warrants to search her computer, phone and home. The next day, police raided Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Sydney headquarters over unrelated leaked government documents.
ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark — who reported in 2017 that Australian troops had killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan in a potential war crime — are still under “active investigation,” McCartney said.
The raids brought rival Australian media organizations together to demand more press freedom and guarantees that reporters would not risk jail over public interest journalism.
Media organizations argue that press freedoms have been eroded by more than 70 counterterrorism and security laws passed by Parliament since the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.
News Corp. Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller said the police decision to drop the case showed why the law reforms championed by Australia’s Right to Know media coalition — particularly contestable warrants and shifting the burden of proof from the defendant — were sensible and essential.
“Almost a year has passed since the AFP illegally raided Annika Smethurst’s home,” Miller said in a statement.
“In that time, Annika has shown great courage, forced to live with the threat of jail for simply doing her job of informing the Australian public on a matter of serious public interest,” he added.
Critics of the raids suspect they had been long planned by police but delayed until less than three weeks after the last federal election to protect the soon-to-be reelected conservative government from political fallout.
McCartney said the investigations took time because they were “complex” and because News Corp. and the ABC challenged in court the legality of search warrants used.
The Federal Court upheld the warrants used against the ABC. The High Court found in April that the warrant executed at Smethurst’s home was invalid, but not illegal.
McCartney said police were able to use evidence seized in both raids on the basis of those court decisions.
Attorney General Christian Porter said the decisions to investigate and not charge Smethurst were made independent of his government.
“I find it, I must say, frustrating that it did take that long for the matter to be resolved,” Porter said.
John Lyon, executive editor of ABC News and head of investigative journalism, said 622 days had passed since police officially informed journalists Oakes and Clark in writing that they were criminal suspects. Such delays were a tactic to discourage sources as well as journalists from exposing the truth to the public, he said.
“The government and the federal police are essentially saying to the Australian public that if you decide to give information to a journalist, then you risk going through a process that could take 622 days plus,” Lyon said.
The government has responded to widespread public outcry over the raids by telling police to consider the importance of a free and open press when investigating leaked documents.
The delay was designed