Police raided the offices of Australia’s national broadcaster on Wednesday over allegations it had published classified material, the second raid on a media outlet in two days, prompting complaints the “outrageous” searches damaged media freedom.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) said its officers carried out a search warrant at the head office of the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) in Sydney.
Police raided the home of a News Corp editor a day earlier, although the AFP said the raids were unrelated.
The ABC said the raid was over its 2017 reports about alleged misconduct by Australian troops in Afghanistan, while News Corp said the raid at its editor’s home on Tuesday related to a 2018 report about plans for surveillance of Australians’ emails, text messages and bank records.
“It is highly unusual for the national broadcaster to be raided in this way,” ABC managing director David Anderson said in a statement.
“This is a serious development and raises legitimate concerns over freedom of the press and proper public scrutiny of national security and defence matters.”
Police questioning of journalists is not new in Australia, but raids on two of its most influential news organizations sparked warnings national security was being used to justify curbs on reporting that might embarrass the government.
Politically sensitive raids must be authorized by the home affairs minister, according to guidelines on the AFP’s website.
The raids came barely two weeks after Australia’s conservative government won a May 18 election it was widely expected to lose, and that almost cost Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton his seat.
“Australians care deeply about press freedom, and if this had happened before the election, it would have become a big issue in the campaign,” said Peter Greste, director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom.
Greste is a former Al Jazeera reporter who was jailed with two colleagues in Egypt from 2013-2015 on national security charges brought by the Egyptian government.
“I’m not suggesting that Australia is about to become Egypt any time soon but what we are seeing seems to me to be on the same spectrum,” Greste said.
Dutton denied involvement in the AFP investigations and said his office was notified after the raids were carried out.
“It is entirely appropriate they conduct their investigations independently and, in fact, it is their statutory obligation,” he said in a statement.
The AFP said the ABC raid related to allegations the broadcaster had published classified material and followed a referral from the Australian Defence Force chief and a former acting defence secretary. It was based on evidence that provided “sufficient suspicion that a criminal offense has been committed,” the AFP said in a statement.
It said in a separate statement the News Corp raid concerned the “alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret, which is an extremely serious matter with the potential to undermine Australia’s national security.”
Rupert Murdoch-controlled News Corp. called the raid “outrageous and heavy handed,” and “a dangerous act of intimidation.”
ABC staff posted footage and commentary of Wednesday’s raid as it unfolded.
John Lyons, the ABC’s head of investigative journalism, said on Twitter: “… this is a bad, sad and dangerous day for a country where we have for so long valued … a free press.”