Search warrants for journalists’ homes and offices should only be issued by senior judges, according to a review of press freedom by Parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee.
- The report comes after separate raids on journalists from the ABC and News Corp
- The committee recommends restricting who can issue warrants against journalists
- It also says the classification of restricted documents should be reviewed
The probe has also recommended a review of how national security legislation is being applied to classifying government documents, amid concerns high-level classifications are being put on documents not worthy of such status.
The Federal Government commissioned the inquiry after the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the Canberra home of News Corp political journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC’s Sydney headquarters over separate stories based on leaked classified information.
The raids sparked outrage within the media, with accusations too much ground had been ceded to national security at the expense of allowing the media to publish information clearly in the public’s interest.
The AFP has confirmed no charges will be laid against anyone involved in the leaks to Ms Smethurst.
But a brief of evidence has been sent to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions relating to ABC journalist Dan Oakes, as the AFP continues to pursue him for his series of stories known as the Afghan Files.
The stories detail allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
The final report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) was released on Wednesday afternoon and addressed concerns not enough legal rigour was being used in approving search warrants in delicate investigations.
“All warrants sought by an enforcement agency, relating to a person working in a professional capacity as a journalist or a media organisation, should be issued by a judge of a superior court,” committee member and Liberal MP Julian Leeser told the House as the report was tabled.
Committee holds firm on media demand
Media organisations, banding together as Australia’s Right To Know Coalition, had been demanding the ability to contest search warrants before they were executed.
That was a proposal dismissed by the committee, which instead opted to recommend expanding the role of public interest advocates — senior lawyers or former judges appointed by the government to provide submissions on whether search warrants were the best course of action.
The Department of Home Affairs had made arguments along those lines, while media organisations had been critical of the idea.
Mr Leeser said the committee had “resisted” issuing journalists exemptions from national security laws.
Media organisations have long argued no such exemptions are being sought — rather that greater protections for journalists and whistleblowers need to be enshrined in legislation.
“It is the committee’s view there’s a healthy tension between the obligations of national security and the transparency of public–interest journalism in Australia,” Mr Leeser said.
A total of 16 recommendations were made by the PJCIS review.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told the House of Representatives Labor backed the recommendations, but urged Federal Parliament to go even further.
“In our view, the Morrison Government should regard the committee’s recommendations as a starting point for reforms.”