'Pendulum has swung too far': Senator pushes for US-style press freedom protections

Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick wants to amend the constitution to protect press freedom. Source: AAP

The Centre Alliance Party is drafting a bill to enshrine US-style press freedom protection in the constitution.

Key crossbench senators will push to amend the constitution to include a US-style press freedom protection in the wake of two unprecedented police raids targeting Australian journalists. 

Centre Alliance senators Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff will introduce legislation proposing an amendment similar to the First Amendment to the United States constitution when Parliament returns next month. 

John Lyons (left), Executive Editor of ABC News, is followed by an Australian Federal Police officer as they walk out the main entrance to the ABC building located at Ultimo in Sydney, Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (AAP Image/David Gray) NO ARCHIVING
Executive Editor of ABC News John Lyons is followed by an Australian Federal Police officer as they leave the office after the raid.

"A constitutional amendment along these lines would put a brake on any future government efforts to suppress the freedom of the press or freedom of expression for all Australians," Senator Patrick said. 

The raids at ABC's Sydney offices and Canberra News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst's home over two consecutive days have sparked debate about Australia's secrecy laws and protection of journalists and their sources. 

Senator Patrick told SBS News a raft of laws had been passed to strengthen national security since the 2011 terrorist attacks in the US, but this was a tipping point.  

"The pendulum has swung too far."

The search warrants were sparked by Ms Smethurst's 2018 report exposing discussions about plans to increase Australian intelligence agencies powers to spy on its citizens, while the ABC published a 2017 series alleging Australian special forces killed unarmed civilians and children in Afghanistan. 

The Australian Federal Police has confirmed the two searches were unrelated. 

Senator Patrick said the proposed constitutional amendment, which would require a referendum, would make it "much more difficult" for raids such as the two carried out this week to occur.

Other media advocates have previously called for new laws to enshrine the right to freedom of the press, protecting journalists’ right not to reveal sources, and enhancing whistle-blower protections.

While Australian journalists can invoke a "public interest" legal defence under national security laws, it doesn't stop them being raided and charged. 

“There are insufficient protections for journalists, there are insufficient protections for whistle-blowers, and we need stronger legislation,” Peter Wilkinson, from the Alliance for Journalists' Freedom, told SBS News.

His organisation, founded by Australian journalist Peter Greste, has renewed its calls for a media freedom act to be introduced to parliament in the wake of the journalist raids.

Peter Greste
Peter Greste has become a strong advocate for press freedom since being released from a prison in Egypt.

“Like a lot of people, I'm really concerned about the last two raids … it imposes an extra level of intimidation and that's really unhealthy.

“That's why it demonstrates to us the need for a media freedom act, that acts as a buffer to prevent these kinds of activities.”

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton have said they believe in freedom of the press, Mr Wilkinson was doubtful they would support such a law.

“Politicians love the concept of press freedom but when you come down to it, are they willing to give journalists the freedom they require?”

AFP corrects statement

The Australian Federal Police has now indicated journalists could face prosecution over stories that sparked the raid, not just the whistleblowers that allegedly leaked the information. 

On Wednesday, the Australian Federal Police initially said in a statement that the ABC search related to a section of the law that only related to the unauthorised disclosure of information by Commonwealth officers. 

AFP officers trawl through ABC emails and files watched on by the broadcaster's lawyers.
AFP officers trawl through ABC emails and files watched on by the broadcaster's lawyers.

But the AFP later clarified that the search warrants "related to secrecy offences in Part 6 and 7 of the Crimes Act 1914" which puts journalists in the firing line. 

Under section 7 of the Crimes Act, anyone that receives or publishes a secret document could face charges that carry a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment. 

Mr Morrison and Mr Dutton have denied any involvement in the raids.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he supports freedom of the press.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he supports freedom of the press.

But Labor's home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally said they have questions to answer. 

"The actions taken under this government give real rise to questions about the state of the free press in this country and whether the balance is tipping significantly towards a weakening of a core element of our democratic society, a free and independent media," she told reporters in Melbourne. 

The Greens have called for a parliamentary inquiry to investigate the raids.  

Marcus Strom from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance said the consecutive raids showed no media organisation was immune from the government's attacks.

"Police raiding journalists is becoming normalised and it has to stop. These raids are about intimidating journalists and media organisations because of their truth-telling."

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