Australian Court Says Raid Of Journalist's Home Was Illegal... But Allows Federal Police To Keep The Evidence They Seized

from the wrong-but-not-wrong-enough-I-guess dept

Last year, the Australian government decided journalists just weren't feeling chilly enough. In response to the publication of leaked documents detailing the government's plan to allow more domestic surveillance, the Australian Federal Police started raiding journalists' homes.

They started with News Corp. journalist Annika Smethurst's home. Hours later, police raided broadcaster Ben Fordham's home. A third raid was broadcast live, as the AFP swarmed ABC's offices seeking documents that might reveal who leaked sensitive documents to journalists.

Australia's prime minister, Scott Morrison, had no problem with this cop-based threat to the country's free speech protections.

Asked if the news troubled him, he said: “It never troubles me that our laws are being upheld.”

The laws aren't being upheld. That's the determination of the country's highest court. In fact, they're being broken.

News Corp. journalist Annika Smethurst went to the High Court to overturn the warrant that was executed on her Canberra home in June last year and triggered a national campaign for greater press freedom.

The seven judges unanimously agreed that the warrant was invalid, partly because it failed to state the offense suspected with sufficient precision.

Unfortunately, the court didn't go so far as to uphold protections for journalists that should shield them from law enforcement raids seeking to uncover their sources.

But the majority of judges rejected her application for the material seized to be destroyed, meaning police could still use it as evidence against her.

This ruling only raises further questions. If the warrant is invalid, what is this evidence being used for? The charges are unclear, according to this court, but somehow the evidence of… whatever… is still valid and can be used to engage in an investigation, if not a prosecution?

For the moment, the AFP says it won't be looking at the evidence it took from Smethurst's home.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said the evidence taken from Smethurst had been “quarantined” from the investigation for the moment.

“So what we’ll do carefully and correctly is take legal advice … on what we do with that particular material,” Kershaw told reporters. “Investigators are not able to look at that.”

That may be, but that statement doesn't say anything about any "looking at" that may have been occurred before court proceedings made it potentially unwise to keep sifting through possibly-tainted evidence.

With this still unsettled, this statement -- from the head of News Corp. -- seems a bit overconfident.

“The High Court ruling sends an indisputable message, that the Federal Police must obey the law and that their raid on Annika Smethurst’s home was illegal,” Miller said in a statement. “Annika Smethurst should not be prosecuted for simply doing her job as a journalist to rightly inform Australians on serious matters of public interest.”

Michael Miller is right: Smethurst should not have been targeted -- much less raided -- for publishing leaked documents. The government's supposed allegiance to protecting free speech rights should have prevented a journalist from being the subject of a law enforcement investigation. But he's somewhat wrong about the message the court sent. It did say the warrant was invalid. But it refused to force the AFP to destroy the illegally obtained evidence. That's not an "indisputable message." That's a mess that still needs to be properly sorted out. All it really says is the AFP needs to be a bit more careful crafting warrants before disregarding the protections Australian journalists are supposed to have.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: annika smethurst, australia, free press, free speech, journalism, leaks, raiding journalists, warrant
Companies: news corp

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Apr 2020 @ 2:33pm

    Now where else have i heard of instances of this sort of thing happening? Oh, yeah! Here in the good ol' US of A!

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.