If there’s one thing we learned as children, it’s that terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days can happen anywhere, even in Australia. Evidently, so can attacks on press freedom. Two police raids in two days on the nation’s public broadcaster, ABC, shocked those in and out of the country. For journalists and those concerned with protecting the freedom of the press, the raids are part of an alarming trend across ostensible western democracies.
Australian Federal Police say they were acting on a referral from the chief of the country’s defense forces, regarding “allegations of publishing classified material, contrary to provisions of the Crimes Act.” In 2017, the ABC published a series of stories, “The Afghan Files,” which revealed allegations of misconduct, including unlawful killings, by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. Journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark were named in the warrant. The previous day, a NewsCorp political editor’s home was raided by the AFP, over articles she wrote in 2018, on proposals to expand domestic surveillance capabilities.
Wednesday’s raid was live-tweeted by John Lyons, executive editor of ABC News, and head of the investigations unit. The next day, the ABC defiantly vowed to continue its work, to provide “proper public scrutiny of national security and defense matters.” In a statement, ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, said his network “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.” Across the Tasman Sea, Radio New Zealand strongly condemned the raid. “We view its actions as an affront to the vital work being done by our public media counterparts.”
Closer to home, Americans were witnesses to a shocking police raid in another unlikely place, San Francisco. Freelance videographer Bryan Carmody’s home and office were raided by San Francisco Police on May 10. The act was allegedly part of an investigation as to who leaked a scandalous police report to Carmody, related to the February death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi. On May 24, Police Chief Bill Scott apologized, conceding the searches were probably illegal. California’s shield law protects journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources, and explicitly forbids police from obtaining such information through searches.
Press freedom is in a “downward spiral,” Freedom House reported on Wednesday. Democratic governments, led by populist leaders, are joining authoritarian regimes in their attempts to stamp out independent journalism, the report said. Viktor Orban of Hungary, and Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia, have also followed an emerging template of consolidating media ownership into friendly hands. The raids in Sydney and San Francisco show that such attacks can happen anywhere, even when robust, constitutional press freedom is guaranteed. However, Sarah Repucci, senior director for research at Freedom House, does offer some hope. “Experience has shown that press freedom can rebound from even lengthy stints of repression when given the opportunity.”