World

Australian minister rejects demand to end police investigation into reporters

An Australian government minister has rejected a national broadcaster's demand that police drop an investigation of two journalists who reported classified information.

Journalists facing probe for publishing classified info on military conduct

In this image made from video, Australia's Federal Police, top, enter the Australian Broadcasting Corporation during a raid on their offices in Sydney, Australia, on June 5. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via Associated Press)

An Australian government minister on Friday rejected a national broadcaster's demand that police drop an investigation of two journalists who reported classified information.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who is responsible for the Australian Federal Police, said he would not intervene in the investigation of Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) investigative journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark.

"Nobody is above the law and the police have a job to do under the law," Dutton told Nine Network television.

"It's up to the police to investigate, to do it independently and make a decision whether or not they prosecute."

ABC managing director David Anderson revealed on Thursday that he had written to Dutton calling for police to drop their investigation of the reporters that led to a raid on the state-funded broadcaster's Sydney headquarters in early June.

The ABC had asked that "any action against the pair cease. Failing that, that the ABC be briefed on when and how the [Australian Federal Police] action will be resolved," Anderson said.

Military misconduct

The police raid sought documents relating to ABC's 2017 reports about Australian Special Air Service Regiment's involvement in Afghanistan, and misconduct by Australian troops.

Oakes and Clark reported in 2017 that Australian troops had killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan in potential war crimes.

Police had raided the Canberra home of News Corp Australia's political editor Annika Smethurst, hunting for unrelated leaked documents that formed the basis of an article she wrote more than a year ago.

The article, dismissed by Dutton at the time as "nonsense," said Defence Department and Home Affairs Department bosses had canvassed giving a security agency new legal powers to spy on Australians.

ABC and News Corp. executives last week expressed frustration that a month after the extraordinary raids, "the fate of our journalists remains unclear."

They had joined with other media organizations to demand legal reforms that would exempt journalists from national security laws passed since 2012 that "would put them in jail for doing their jobs."

Attorney General Christian Porter, who would need to authorize any prosecution of reporters involved, said last month "there is absolutely no suggestion that any journalist is the subject of the present investigations."

Inquiry to investigate

In London at a conference on press freedom this week, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney mentioned the Australian police raids in the context of threats to press freedom that "exist even in countries that otherwise have a strong tradition of free speech."

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, who represented Australia at the conference, said her government had made the right decision last week by asking a parliamentary committee to hold an inquiry into the impact of Australian law enforcement and intelligence powers on press freedom in response to public outrage over the raids.

But critics argue that the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security — chaired by a Special Air Service veteran of the Afghanistan war and government lawmaker Andrew Hastie — is not equipped to find the correct balance.

"No one here in the government is standing up for media freedom and it's an embarrassment to our country," Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said on Friday.