Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison chastised a top civil servant on Tuesday over allegations he sought to intimidate a parliamentarian to stop him criticising the security department over raids at the country’s two biggest media organisations.
The revelation that Mike Pezzullo, secretary of the department of home affairs, phoned senator Rex Patrick following last week’s raids on state broadcaster ABC and News Corp comes amid an outcry from civil liberties groups over what they say is a crackdown on press freedom, the targeting of whistleblowers and a government obsession with secrecy.
Police seized hundreds of documents linked to two media investigations on national security matters that embarrassed the Liberal-National government that won re-election last month. They subsequently warned that the journalists could be charged for receiving and publishing “official secrets”, a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Mr Morrison has tried to distance his government from the raids, saying it is committed to press freedom and that they are a matter for the police. But he criticised Mr Pezzullo for expressing his displeasure at Mr Patrick’s criticism of the police action.
“I do find those things concerning, and the home affairs minister and I have discussed that and the home affairs minister has had an appropriate conversation with the secretary,” Mr Morrison told reporters.
Mr Pezzullo has denied his phone call was intended to intimidate Mr Patrick.
The police raids have been condemned worldwide by media organisations and civil rights groups. In Australia, they sparked a debate about media freedom, whistleblower protections and a torrent of new security laws that critics warn are eroding democratic rights.
More than 70 sets of national security legislation have been passed since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 — more than in the US or the UK, both of which have higher standards of protection for civil rights and freedom of the press.
“Australia is the only liberal democracy in the world that does not have some form of charter or bill of rights,” said Gillian Triggs, a former Australian human rights commissioner.
She said this has left courts relatively powerless to scrutinise acts of parliament and adequately protect civil rights in the wake of a “cynical and opportunistic executive power grab” over the past 15 years. Ms Triggs said this was not just a problem for the media but also left people exposed to day-to-day infringements of their civil rights and has a chilling impact on whistleblowers.
Last year, Canberra passed legislation on foreign espionage that includes penalties of up to 20 years in jail for publishing protected information, with only limited exemptions for journalists. Parliament rushed through a law enabling police to bypass encryption by covertly embedding software on mobile phones shortly before Christmas. In 2015, a data retention law was passed handing authorities the ability to secretly request journalists’ phone metadata in order to track down sources.
One of the stories at the centre of the police raids last week is a 2017 investigation by the ABC into allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. David McBride, a former defence department lawyer, has already admitted he leaked the files on which the ABC story is based and is being prosecuted.
“There’s no real national security information here. It’s a national shame and the government want to make sure that nobody is going to come forward and embarrass them in any way,” he told Channel 10.
Mr McBride followed public interest disclosure rules by disclosing his concerns to the defence department before talking to the media when they were not officially addressed.
George Williams, professor of law at University of New South Wales and who has studied the security laws introduced over the past 15 years, said some of the new measures are deeply flawed. He said they were passed by parliament on the proviso that they would be amended later but, in many cases, this did not happen.
“Australia never developed a rights culture and the media lost interest in the issue,” he said.
Johan Lidberg, an associate professor at Monash University, said Australia’s secrecy culture is deeply ingrained and dates back to its Westminster heritage and the UK official secrets act. It is highlighted by a decision to exclude intelligence agencies from the freedom of information act and the tendency of politicians to evoke national security to avoid scrutiny.
He said the opposition Labor party has done little to rein in the ruling Liberal-National coalition by supporting a series of tough new laws for fear of being labelled soft on national security.
“Australian politicians have ruthlessly exploited the fear of terrorism to score political points and pass national security laws,” said Mr Lidberg. “We are meant to be a beacon of democracy in Asia yet we don’t even have basic democratic protections that would normally be provided by a bill of rights.”