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Australian opposition calls for review of press freedom

Australia's Federal Police (top) raided the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s offices in Sydney on June 5.
Australia's Federal Police (top) raided the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s offices in Sydney on June 5.(Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s opposition on Wednesday called for a parliamentary inquiry into press freedom after police raids on a media organization’s Sydney headquarters and a journalist’s Canberra home seeking to uncover the source of government leaks.

The government, meanwhile, was defending the nation’s potent array of security laws, which have come under criticism since the raids last week on Australian Broadcasting Corp. in Sydney and News Corp. Australia reporter Annika Smethurst’s home.

Opposition home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally called for the bipartisan Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to investigate whether the balance between press freedom and national security is right in legislation passed since the conservative government was first elected in 2013.

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She wrote in The Australian newspaper that Australia was an outlier among its Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners United States, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand in not having such oversight.

There was also a ‘‘concern that only leaks embarrassing the government merit investigation while those that benefit the government do not,’’ Keneally wrote.

Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland Law School, said Australia went from having no counterterrorism laws before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States to having more than any other country in the world, with more than 60 new pieces of legislation and amendments.

There had been no counterbalancing laws to uphold human rights or press freedom, she said. And Australia didn’t have enshrined rights like the US First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

‘‘We just lack a rights culture,’’ Ananian-Welsh said. ‘‘It’s there, but it’s very weak and has no teeth.’’

She said taking hard stances on national security had been politically popular and the new laws gave certain government agencies broad powers to do everything from searching metadata without a warrant to coopting telecommunication workers to crack encryption technology.

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She said the raids appeared designed to intimidate potential whistleblowers, sources, and journalists.

But she was heartened by the call for an inquiry, she said, and thought that outcry over the raids may help swing the political pendulum back toward protecting press freedoms.

Australia’s prime minister and communications minister have been meeting with editors and senior media executives to discuss concerns following raids, which police have said were based on concerns that secret information had been leaked.

Media organizations say the raids were aimed as much at intimidating the press.

Former defense lawyer David McBride will appear in a Canberra court on Thursday charged with leaking to ABC journalists documents including allegations that Australian troops had been involved in unlawful killings in Afghanistan.

McBride has pleaded not guilty to the charges and argues he acted in the public interest.

The raid on the home of Smethurst, the political editor of Sydney’s The Sunday Telegraph newspaper, focused on a 2018 story detailing an alleged government proposal to spy on Australian citizens, which cannot currently be done legally.

No arrests were made as a result of the raids.

Keneally told ABC that the government’s ‘‘cavalier response’’ to the raids shows there is a ‘‘very real concern that freedom of the press is under attack in Australia.’’

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, whose Sydney office was targeted by demonstrators on Tuesday protesting the raids, did not comment on the likelihood of his government supporting an inquiry as proposed by the center-left Labor Party opposition.

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He said the raids were investigating federal officials for failing to keep information secret, not journalists, and the laws that allowed the search warrants were decades old.

‘‘Of course we understand that journalists are anxious about the events of last week,’’ Fletcher told ABC.

‘‘Press freedom is a bedrock principle in a democracy, and we are always open to looking at further improvements to the laws if sober analysis of the evidence suggests that is required,’’ he added.

Though Australia has no constitutional right to freedom of speech or a Bill of Rights, the High Court has ruled there is an implied freedom of political communication within the constitution limited to politics and government issues because a democracy requires such freedom.

But critics argue that successive governments have become more secretive and intolerant of reporting that causes political embarrassment.