Australian journalists fear for press freedom after two police raids

The raid at ABC, along with one at the home of a newspaper journalist, raised fears of a loss of press freedom.

Two police raids in two days on Australia’s national broadcaster and a prominent journalist have raised concerns about press freedom in the country.

Police searched the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in Sydney on Wednesday, saying in a statement they were acting on a “referral” from the country’s defense forces over “allegations of publishing classified material.”

ABC linked the police investigation to a series of stories it published in 2017 called “The Afghan Files,” which revealed allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. The network slammed the raids and vowed to stand by its journalists.

“This is a serious development and raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and defense matters,” ABC Managing Director David Anderson said in a statement emailed to CNN. “The ABC stands by its journalists, will protect its sources and continue to report without fear or favor on national security and intelligence issues when there is a clear public interest,” he added.

John Lyons, the network’s executive editor and head of investigative journalism, tweeted on Wednesday that the warrant allows police to “add, copy, delete or alter” material on ABC’s computers.

The police seized several documents but agreed to seal them for two weeks in order to give the ABC time to appeal the warrant, Lyons added.

The raid on ABC comes a day after police visited a residence in a suburb of the Australian capital Canberra. That raid was also related to the “alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret,” police said in a statement.

Australian media and several press freedom advocacy groups identified the residence as the home of journalist Annika Smethurst, national politics editor at the Sunday Telegraph and other newspapers owned by News Corp, billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate.

News Corp Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but said in a statement to CNN affiliate SBS that the raid was “outrageous and heavy handed.”

“This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths,” a spokesperson said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country “believes strongly in the freedom of the press,” in comments posted on his official website.

“There are also clear rules protecting Australia’s national security and everybody should operate in accordance with all of those laws,” Morrison added.

‘Deeply troubling’

Australian police said in a statement Wednesday that the two raids were not connected. But they have sparked outrage from journalists and watchdog groups that say the government is clamping down on press freedom.

“Together these extraordinary and intrusive police actions indicate a worrying attitude on the part of law enforcement, security agencies and the federal government — which is contrary to the public’s right to know,” the National Press Club of Australia said in a statement.

“They appear calculated to intimidate would-be whistleblowers from coming forward in the public interest, and prevent journalists from doing their jobs.”

National broadcasters elsewhere also expressed concern. The BBC described the raid on ABC as “a deeply troubling” attack on press freedom.

“At a time when the media is becoming less free around the world, it is highly worrying if a public broadcaster is being targeted for doing its job of reporting in the public interest,” the BBC said in a statement.

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