On Thursday, a judge voided a search warrant used by the San Francisco Police Department to monitor a journalist’s phone. The warrant was then used to gather information in advance of a controversial raid on the apartment and news operation of Bryan Carmody, who published a leaked police report and refused to divulge its source. Meanwhile, more details are emerging down under on a similar raid on Australia’s public broadcaster. In a troubling time worldwide for press freedoms, this week provided much-needed good news, and a dose of disinfecting daylight.
San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Rochelle East ruled Thursday that a search warrant violated the state’s Shield Law, which protects journalists, and prohibits law enforcement from forcing them to hand over unpublished material or revealing confidential sources. In effect, the SFPD did not tell East that Carmody was a journalist, and the warrant never should have been issued. Carmody even had a San Francisco press pass, issued by the SFPD. The now illegally-obtained evidence against Carmody must be destroyed.
The warrant was one of many used against Carmody by police, in connection to (or retaliation against) a leaked police report. On February 22, San Francisco public defender, and frequent police critic, Jeff Adachi died. The next day, local TV stations began reporting on the leaked report, which Carmody had sold them, containing ostensibly embarrassing details about Adachi’s last hours. They suggest that someone within the SFPD was looking for retribution against Adachi, and attempting to discredit him posthumously. Carmody’s apartment was raided in May by armed officers, his equipment confiscated. His lawyer is attempting to get that search warrant voided, under the Shield Law, too.
Meanwhile, the ABC revealed that Australian Federal Police wanted to fingerprint two of their journalists in the lead-up to raids on the public broadcaster. Requests to “copy your finger and palm prints” were sent to Dan Oakes and Sam Clark on April 1, some two months before a series of raids in June, which caused many Australians a great deal of concern about their country’s press freedoms. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that the AFP had sought Oakes’ travel details from Qantas, the country’s largest airliner.
They, along with a News Corp reporter, are still facing prosecution for publishing classified materials in a series on unlawful killings by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is being urged to call off the investigation, and he, so far, has refused. “Calls for me to somehow intervene with an investigation would be completely improper,” he told radio station 2GB on Thursday. “I’ll leave it to the commissioner and to the AFP to conduct their investigation unhindered by me.” Dutton also insisted he had no role to play in the raids. He told Channel Nine that “nobody is above the law.”
The tribulations— and trials— of these journalists are still ongoing. They underscore the perils their profession face today in speaking truth to power, even in supposedly free countries. While the increasingly authoritarian states of Eastern and Central Europe get all the attention, press freedoms have eroded across the west as well. This week’s court decision was a win for the good guys in San Francisco. In Australia too, a light was shone on the important work journalists did in uncovering the shady doings of their government. Yet, they underscore the need for continued vigilance in protecting a constitutionally-protected profession which cannot always protect itself.