Words by Annabelle McKinnon
The heart of democracy is broken — and you should be worried.
Annika Smethurst, a political journalist for the Sunday Telegraph, was getting ready for a day at work when she received a knock on the door by the Australian Federal Police. The raid lasted over 7 hours, rustling through bins, searching her oven, and sifting through her underwear. They even looked through her tired Christmas decorations collecting dust and housing spiders for the winter. Her space was invaded, and she was persecuted in the pursuit of journalistic integrity. Smethurst is now considered a potential criminal for exposing the truth. Let that sink in.
That truth was in relation to new powers, the fact that the Federal Government supposedly requires greater surveillance over its citizens. The article Smethurst wrote claimed the Australian Signals Directorate would be able to spy on Australians by hacking into critical infrastructure without a warrant. The Home Affairs boss, Mike Pezzullo, confirmed the story would be referred for police investigation shortly after the article was published over a year ago. The Minister for Home Affairs initially dismissed the report as “nonsense”.
Our outrage poured into the next day when Australians watched the AFP storm the ABC Headquarters. On this occasion, they sieved through 9000 files trying to find the classified source accusing Australia’s elite special forces in Afghanistan of killing unarmed men and children. They left with 100 documents on two USB sticks sealed in plastic evidence bags.
2GB radio host, Ben Fordham said he had been officially advised that he was the subject of a similar investigation over a report about several boatloads of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia from Sri Lanka.
All three incidents were unrelated, but all were met with an unprecedented attack on free press. These restrictions are rightly prompting questions about the limits of the media. What can journalists publish without government threats? How do reporters even consider holding politicians accountable for their wrongdoings if they risk losing their livelihoods? Why does the law not cover this?
Scott Morrison claims he had no idea these raids were taking place and sides with the AFP to do their job and protect the exposure of classified documents. And yes, Morrison is right. The AFP are doing their job according to the law. But for our leaders to dismiss our rights to know their plans that directly affect us is not only wrong, it is hurtful to the democracy that they preach and is an integral part of what makes our country so bloody great. The democracy that we need, but apparently only when it suits their agenda. If you have a go then you’ll get a go, right? Not anymore.
As the people living under a purported democracy, politicians are meant to act on behalf of those who employ them — us, the Australian voters and taxpayers. We have a right to know what plans the government has for us and what they are so desperately trying to hide.
There is no evidence to suggest that Annika Smethurst and the two journalists from the ABC damaged national security. News Corp, who is normally a friend of the Liberal Government, attacked the raid as a “dangerous act of intimidation” that undermined the public’s “right to know”. Put best by ABC chairwoman, Ita Buttrose, these journalists decided to shine a light on disturbing dark corners of our very own state that the public would otherwise be blind to. These journalists and whistle-blowers are somehow the individuals being persecuted — not the people hiding the information.
But, without clear laws or constitutional protection for journalists like the US, UK, and Canada, our democratic system is a step behind everyone else.
The raids bear witness to a system that simply isn’t working and puts reporters and their sources in jeopardy. However, the real indignity is the tarnished state of democracy, which will only sink further in the absence of a free press.
This is not about letting the media stick their nose into every nook and cranny of the government, but instead ensuring our politicians are kept both transparent and accountable for their actions. We don’t need rose-tinted glasses to see the beauty of Australia. That beauty is our ability to look our politicians in the eye and confront them for what is wrong and unjust.